On March 27 during Women’s History Month we celebrate Muslim Women Day. Muslim women in the UK are one of the most marginalised groups in the country. Out of all religious groups, Muslim women are least likely to find employment. This is in conjunction with the EU ruling against the hijab further restricting Muslims women’s participation in public life. More disturbingly this trend has manifested in violent physical attacks on the streets where Muslim women have reported having their hijabs ripped off and being dragged to the pavement. The Brexit result, Trump’s Presidential election and the Westminster attack has exacerbated the climate of suspicion and racism of which Muslim women bear the brunt. Now more than ever it is important to stand in solidarity with Muslim women.
The horrific attack on parliament last week should have been the opportunity for mainstream media outlets and politicians to come together not only in commemoration of the victims but to stand together against the Muslim blaming that quickly emerged. An example of this was when a photo of a Muslim woman at the scene of the attack went viral unleashing vitriolic Islamophobia.
Within 30 minutes of the attack, ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Lennon) was on the scene claiming Islam was responsible. The evidence shows the perpetrator Khalid Masood acted alone, he was not tied to any one group.
Whilst many politicians and media broadcasters have correctly condemned the attack they chose not to condemn the Islamophobia that erupted in its aftermath. The BBC’s Andrew Neil was commended for his impassioned speech against terrorism, yet not once did he call for standing against racism and Islamophobia nor did he make the pertinent point that terrorism belongs to no faith or ideology.
The Prime Minister Theresa May has scarcely been better in defending Muslims. She has been voted as ‘Islamophobe of the year’ by human rights advocacy group Islamic Human Rights Commission for her support of the controversial anti-extremism programme Prevent — a programme allegedly designed to combat extremism. Data shows that Muslims — who only make up 5 percent of the national population — are targeted in the vast majority of cases. In throwing her weight behind an initiative that stigmatises Muslims and has been used to curtail civil liberties — May gives credence to the lie that Muslims do pose a threat to people’s security.
Attacks against Muslims — in particular against Muslim women — have not come from nowhere. Salma Yaqoob the anti-war campaigner from Birmingham wrote last year:
A whole industry has been created to promote Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice
For over a decade Muslims have been vilified as the enemy within. Following every terrorist attack where the perpetrator is Muslim, Muslims across the world are expected to condemn these attacks and are often blamed for them. However guilt by association was not applied to all white Christian men when Anders Breivik the Norwegian mass murderer went on his rampage killing 11 people in 2011. Breivik drew inspiration from fascists including the EDL. Despite his affinity to violent, fascist groups, Breivik was described as a ‘lone wolf’ or ‘mentally ill’. This undermined his penchant for violence but it also stigmatised those with mental health problems.
The promotion of Islamophobia has become normalised to such a degree that when attacks against mosques are reported, when Muslim women are physically attacked, when school children are targeted for their faith, or when an elderly man like Mohammed Saleem is brutally murdered by a Neo-Nazi terrorist there is very little denunciation from mainstream press outlets and politicians. This inconsistency is galling. When the perpetrator is a Muslim all the newspapers and broadcasters scream ‘Islamist terror.’ When the perpetrator is a white man he is acting alone or mentally unstable.
Muslim politicians have not been exempt from the Islamophobic backlash. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi has previously said: ‘Islamophobia has passed the dinner table test.’
London Mayor Sadiq Khan has been subject to a vile racist campaign from his opponent Zac Goldsmith in part aided by the London Evening Standard by frequently implying Sadiq Khan had links to terrorists. Salma Yaqoob has faced similar abuse during her time as a Councillor and as an anti-war campaigner.
It is therefore hardly surprising to discover that in 2015 reports there was a 326% rise in anti-Muslim incidents followed by another spike after the Brexit and London Mayoral campaigns. Tell MAMA reports the surge in anti-Muslim attacks has left many Muslim women in fear of conducting their daily business.
Sexism and Islamophobia has also been fueled by Trump’s election. His decision to impose a ‘Muslim ban’, curtail women’s access to lifesaving abortion services and his misogyny exemplified in the infamous ‘p****-grabbing’ video have fostered an unwelcome environment for women, Muslims and *Black people.
Many of the attacks against women following Trump’s election have seen many Muslim women reporting having had their hijabs ripped off. Many African American women received death threats in the street by white men calling them n***** b**** and others shouting similar abuse adding: “Trump is going to deport you back to Africa.”
Attacks against Muslim women is not limited to the UK and the USA. It is exhibited across many countries as the EU ruling against Muslim women wearing the hijab at work illustrates. France, Belgium and the Netherlands have successfully imposed restrictions on Muslim women’s dress. France has attempted to ban the burkini last year, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has also called for a ban on the burqa. This chorus demanding restrictions in women’s attire is echoed by the far-right. UKIP has called for a ban on the veil in the UK. Gilbert Collard, an MP for the Rassemblement Bleu Marine, which supports Marine Le Pen’s Front National, claimed the ruling was an endorsement for FN. “Even the ECJ votes Marine,” he wrote on Twitter.
There is a strange irony in claiming Muslims pose a unique threat to society therefore we must invest state resources to restrict women’s choice of dress.
The attacks on Muslim women’s dress is compounded by the lack of opportunities available to them in the job market in the UK. The Women and Equalities Committee found they are three times as likely to be unemployed corresponding with the figure that only 35% of women of working age are in employment. The Committee also stressed the role of Islamophobia and discrimination in the recruitment process as a contributing factor to the high unemployment rate.
Racism and sexism are tried and tested methods of division and distraction. These tactics of distraction are more important now from the swinging Conservative axe that is making deep cuts to public services and jobs. These tactics are no different from Trump’s administration who have no answers for a stagnant economy and high unemployment rates.
An important opportunity has arisen to stand against sexism and racism on 20 May with the Women’s March Against Trumpism in Birmingham. An anti choice coalition labelled March for Life is assembling in Birmingham’s city centre to promote their extremist anti-choice, and anti-women views. March for Life includes groups that protest outside abortion clinics with graphic images, they are homophobic, and offer women misleading information through crisis pregranacy centres that lie about the effects of abortion.
Seeing as one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime and that according to the recent YouGov poll, 92% of the British public agree a woman should have the right to choose, and that abortion is legal in this country, March for Life’s gathering is unnecessary and against most people’s beliefs. At worst it would be extremely upsetting for some people shopping or going about their business on a Saturday in Birmingham city centre.
Concerns have also been raised about links the anti-choice movement has to the far right. Jim Dowson from March for Life’s partner organisation Youth Defence, was a member of the BNP & the “ideological guru” of Britain First.
Furthermore March for Life styles its anti-choice politics on that of the American model now spear-headed by America’s Vice-President Mike Pence who was a guest speaker at the March for Life rally in Washington where he attended and passed on greetings from President Donald Trump. Pence is an ardent anti-choice Republican: he sponsored extreme anti-abortion legislation in Congress, he promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade and he was also responsible for the huge expansion of the global gag rule.
It is important for all progressives to attend this demonstration. Women’s groups, Muslim groups, LGBT groups, trade unionists, MPs, Councillors, students — people from all walks of life are invited to show a united front against Trumpism.
Let us take inspiration from the 3 million strong Women’s March against Trump in the States that opposed both racism and sexism recognising that women, Black people, Muslims, immigrants and Latin Americans were at the forefront of Trump’s attacks. The lead organisers of the Women’s March were three women, one of whom was a Palestinian Muslim, another was African American and the final organiser was Latin American. Diversity is our strength!
Reject the toxic brand of sexism, racism and bigotry advocated by March for Life who finds its inspiration in Trump’s administration.
*Black is being used in this instance to describe people of African-Caribbean and Asian descent
Rashida Islam, Abortion Rights Executive Committee