Muslim women in the UK are far more likely to fall victim to hate crimes, monitoring groups say, as London police revealed statistics showing an alarming rise in Islamophobic attacks.
The news comes after a shocking video emerged of an unprovoked violent attack on a hijab-wearing UK teenager, in which the victim was seen being punched in broad daylight while walking down the street.
Physical, verbal and online attacks on Muslims rose sharply in the 12 months to July, new data from London’s Metropolitan Police Service shows. There were 816 offences in the period, compared with 478 in the preceding 12 months – an increase of almost 71 percent.
Muslim women are bearing the brunt of the rise in attacks, which range from verbal abuse to violent assaults – including assailants tearing off niqabs or threatening to burn them with lighter fluid – observers say.
Fiyaz Mughal, director of the UK-based Islamophobia-monitoring group Tell MAMA, says that 60% of street-based Islamophobic attacks are against women.
“Women suffer more incidents, and more aggressive incidents of hate,” he told Al Arabiya News.
One reason behind this is the visibility of those women who chose to cover their heads and faces, Mughal said. For those perpetrating the attacks, face coverings “visualize ‘the other’ very clearly,” he said.
Rotherham, Charlie Hebdo and ISIS
The Metropolitan Police attributed the rise in recorded Islamophobic offences in London to a growing willingness of victims to report hate crime, the improved awareness of officers, as well as unspecified “world events”.
Mr Mughal pointed to the beheadings by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as the refugee crisis in Europe as being linked to the rise in Islamophobic attacks.
“We’ve had a handful of cases where people are being called ‘migrant scum’,” he said. “There’s just lots of hate that is being fermented.”
Other incidents that saw a spike in Islamophobic incidents reported to Tell MAMA included the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, as well as the scandals involving so-called ‘Muslim grooming gangs’ in Rotherham in the UK.
Mr Mughal said the number of incidents was definitely increasing, and said it was not just a case of more Muslims reporting crimes. He estimates that there was a 40 to 60 percent increase in cases in the year to July, a lower rise than that reported by the Metropolitan Police.
One of the most extreme UK hate crimes of recent years was the April 2013 murder of Mohammed Saleem, an 82-year-old killed while walking home from his mosque in Birmingham. Ukrainian student Pavlo Lapshyn, 25, was jailed for life for the racially motivated murder, after telling police he murdered Saleem because he hated “non-whites”.
And a video emerged this week of an attack on 16-year-old Tasneem Kabir in 2012, in which the victim was seen being brutally punched to the ground as she made her way to college. Michael Ayoade, 34, was jailed for four years after being found guilty of the assault, which took place in east London, according to press reports.
Mussurut Zia, general secretary of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, said there are an increasing number of such hate crimes happening across the country – not just in London.
“I know of people who have had their hijabs pulled, who have been kicked, who have had their niqab pulled off, people who have been assaulted, pushed and shoved and threatened with lighter fluid,” she said.
The majority of hate crimes against Muslims – even more than the “conservative” 60 percent estimated by Tell MAMA – are against women, Zia said. But while women are more likely to attract the “hate and the venom” of racist attackers, they are far less likely to come forward and report incidents, she added.
“They’re not coming forward for various reasons,” said Zia. “It’s still very much this thought, ‘well, what’s it going to achieve? Leave it - we don’t want to rock the boat’.”
Asma Sheikh, from north London, says she is one of the thousands of hate-crime victims who did not report the crime against her. Shortly after the 2013 killing of British Army soldier Lee Rigby, who was stabbed to death in a London street by two Islamic extremists, Sheikh’s car was vandalized, with a note left on the windscreen saying ‘go back home’.
Despite not reporting the crime to the police at the time, Sheikh has since chosen to do something about Islamophobic hate crime – and the fear of it she sees in her community. So the Londoner and her sister have started teaching self-defense to Muslim women in their area.
“There’s a lot of hatred going on,” she said. “We feel like [some Muslim women in London] have been afraid to come out. We’re completely against fighting – but what we don’t want is someone to get hurt if they can avoid it.”
Sheikh said that she wants London Muslims to feel empowered – just as she did after performing the Umrah pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia last April.
After Sheikh returned, she felt the confidence to start wearing a full abaya in public. Before, she only felt confident enough to cover her head, not her face, when out in London.
“I fully cover and I love it,” she told Al Arabiya News. “It was the fear that was holding me back – of being looked or talked at funny, or possibly attacked.”
Others have called for a national strategy to combat the rising tide of Islamophobia in the UK.
Miqdaad Versi, Assistant Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that the London police service’s data is in line with the anecdotal evidence the council has observed – although he agreed that there is “massive under-reporting” of cases.
He said that he hoped other UK police forces would start issuing specific statistics on Islamophobia, saying that the numbers show the need for “a national coordinated strategy” to tackle bigotry in the country.
“There’s a social acceptance of Islamophobia in our society,” said Versi. “Everyone knows someone who’s been a victim.”