Here I am, walking through London, wearing my veil. I have seen devout Muslim women wear it and I am fascinated by it. I want to try to understand how they feel, to walk in their shoes. I have worn it for three days and on this last day, in the high street in Dagenham, East London, I feel genuinely afraid. People—women—are abusing me as I pass and laughing into their hands; if it were night, I would fear for my physical safety. Everything I thought I knew about being a woman in this glittering neon city is wrong. Muslim women are frightened—and they are right to be. Islamophobia, globally, is on the rise. A study by gallup.com indicates that 52 percent of Western countries surveyed had an unfavourable opinion of Islam [while in India, a consensus of findings by multiple faith-based agencies, taken to a hearing to the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), showed that attacks on minorities (Muslims in particular) had gone up since 2014—with 150 attacks on them taking place since then]. The refugee crisis and the rise of the ISIS means that—for bigots—Muslim women are a target. Austerity policies have not helped because racism flourishes with economic insecurity. The day before I am due to go out for this feature, a Muslim woman is attacked outside her university in Central London. Her veil is ripped from her face. I want to investigate the experiences of women like them—and my own prejudice—because I have always hated the veil and seen it as a tool of oppression.
My first call is to Sajda Mughal, a winner at last year’s Cosmopolitan UK Ultimate Woman Awards and director of the JAN trust, a charity supporting vulnerable ethnic-minority women. “It’s gotten worse”, she says. “In the last three years alone, we have seen a 65% rise in the number of women coming to us and telling us of their suffering.” Veiled women she says “have been spat at, slapped, and hit. Perpetrators have tried to pull off their veils on buses, in the streets.” The youngest victim she has worked with was seven; she was told at school that “your father is Osama bin Laden”. She has heard of ambulance workers refusing to transport women in headscarves and social workers telling children their native lands are “terrorist countries”. She herself has been threatened. One telephone message said, “I want to slit your Muslim throat.” Those responsible, she says, are almost always white men. She says she has never met a veiled woman who doesn’t wear it by choice. Perhaps it’s comforting for women like me to believe they are coerced into wearing it by their families. Is that my form of racism? Do I not trust these women to make their own choices? I order a dress from Amazon: it is ‘modest’, Saudi-style. When it arrives, my husband says it is more revealing than some of my clothes, so I order a second one, but I’ve forgotten to buy the veil. I stop a Muslim woman in my street and ask her where to buy one; I lie and say I am visiting Saudi Arabia. She says I do not need to explain and sends me to Shepherd’s Bush Market in London. I buy the veil and niqab (the part that covers the face). Leaving the market, I catch reflection of my sight and am shocked. I look like nothing; like a backdrop or a wall. I jump into a Costa Coffee; it is familiar, but I think there is less warmth in the server’s eyes than is usual. She seems brusque, efficient, keen to get it over with. I have no excuse to stay here, although I want to. I want to hide in the toilet, invent the article, go home. Outside, I pass another woman in a veil. “As-salamu ‘alaykum”, she says, a common Muslim greeting meaning ‘peace be upon you’. I am desperately grateful; even so, I feel ashamed. My sisterhood with her— which she so sweetly acknowledges— is a pretense. The veil does not always bring peace. Sajda told me of three women she has worked with. One took her daughter, aged two, to a playground. A white man shouted “terrorist b*tch” and “f*ck off out of my country, ISIS b*tch”. (He obviously didn’t know ISIS mostly terrorise other Muslims.) He ordered his dog to attack them. She went to the police. They did nothing. Her child screamed every night for months.The second woman she talks about was on the bus to pick her toddler up from nursery. A young white man called her a “terrorist” and an “ugly b*tch” who should “get out of my country” because “you people just breed terrorists”. Instead of helping her, other passengers applauded. The bus driver did nothing. She stopped crying when she got to the nursery; she did not want to frighten her child. A third woman was walking in a town centre and heard a man say “terrorist”. He said “go back to your country”, and, “You must be ugly, that’s why you’re wearing that thing.” He ripped her veil off and threw it on the ground. She still has nightmares—that he is killing her. On my first day in the veil, I catch a bus to Hammersmith in west London. I am uncomfortable. I dribble on my veil. Normally, I am over-friendly with strangers. I say hello to bus drivers. I accost women with babies. Today I do not want to. I feel immobile and isolated; I feel I can do nothing right. I get off and see, on the time table, a bus to Teddington, where I spent my early childhood. Of course, I’m seeking places where I am deeply rooted; where I feel safe. I look for the stop, and something happens to surprise me. A man runs over and says, “Can I help you?” He takes me to the stop. This is the other side then: concern. The solicitude. Maybe the pity? On the bus, I can’t read because my glasses slide off the veil. If I put them inside, the fabric stretches and cuts into me and I look absurd, like an owl. I can’t eat as I would have to raise the cloth, which I am beginning to feel a strange loyalty to because it is, for now, the identity I have chosen, and all I have. If I am to wear it, I will wear it properly; I will not defame it. I can’t make conversation because I am afraid of the response. I am silenced. I get off at Teddington, and walk up the high street. I am no longer sure why I came here because whatever I am looking for my tiny self, I suppose—it is no longer here. It is just a suburban street on a sunny day. I feel tired, although it is only lunch time; the black polyester draws in heat. The veil prickles against my eyelashes. In Marks & Spencer, people seem more careful than usual to barge into me. A young, pretty saleswoman in Boots gives me a warm, penetrating look. Two people in the street—white, in their 50s—glare and step back. I take another bus to Kingston, where the number of Islamophobic attacks doubled in the past year. I walk around the Saturday market, then go back into Costa Coffee. I feel a low hum of hostility. People look me up and down, and look aghast or angry. One man—young, redhead— gives me a stare of pure hatred. He moves closer to me, holding it as long as possible, so I know he hates me. I go to central London on the train, and take the Underground home. The train is fine because it is empty, but the Underground is not. I receive many angry glances, and some cross murmurs, so I am relieved to return to Camden Town. Many women are veiled in my street. I fit in, as always. On the second day, I go to central London again. A few women pull their children away from me in Hamleys; maybe they think I would trip on them? But then a salesman at Zara talks to me with such bouncing sweetness and enthusiasm I am thrilled. He sees me looking at a handbag, and picks it up to show me. He doesn’t seem to notice the veil at all; perhaps consumer capitalism has no prejudices. So far my experience is nothing like those of the women Sajda told me about. But I want to know what it’s like for a woman who, through commitment to her culture alone, is obliged to feel fear. And so, before I hang up my veil, I go to Dagenham, east London. It is a declining manufacturing town with a history of racism. In 2006, the BNP won 12 council seats—although they lost them all in 2010—and 14% of the total vote. As I get off the Tube, I feel hostility immediately. It crackles in the air. I ask a taxi driver: is this the high street? “Yes,” he says with his face full of loathing. I walk up and down the street. I see women in headscarves, but no one is veiled.
Soon an elderly white woman says to me, almost conversationally, as if talking about the weather, as I pass, “That’s disgusting.” Next a man in a van stops and makes a phone sign with his hand. “Oi!” he shouts, “Can I have your number?” His friends laugh. I could say he is treating me as he would any woman, and it is what passes for charm in his eyes, but I don’t think so. It is a taunt. Another elderly white woman says, “You’ve got a nerve.” Next a group women sitting outside a café laugh loudly as I pass; I hear them talk about me, their laughter tinkling across the pavement. I do not know how I would feel if I had my two-year-old with me, and could not tear off my veil and shout, “I’m not a Muslim”. Petrified probably. Then a man—again, white and elderly—shouts into my face “Ratbag!” It is such a silly insult, I almost laugh, but what would come next? All these interactions took place in just five minutes in sunlight in a crowded street. In 2013, a disabled Iranian refugee called Bijan Ebrahimi was beaten to death in Bristol, and his body set alight. The police ignored his pleas for help in the days leading up to his murder and even arrested him. I understand now how this happened. I still hate the veil. But after three days of wearing it, I no longer think it is my response to it that matters. What matters is the fear women feel, when they should not, and the violence lurking in our cities. I thought I knew about misogyny. I was wrong.”
The Burqa around the world: How different countries police the veil.
- France In 2011, France became the first European country to outlaw burqas in public. Then-president Nicolas Sarkozy called the women wearing them “prisoners behind a screen”. Soon after, Belgium followed suit.
- India Wearing the burqa is completely accepted. Being a staunchly secular democracy with a Muslim population of 176 million (14 percent of the country), there is no bar on Muslim women choosing to—or not choosing to—wear one.
- Saudi Arabia One of the only Muslim-majority countries that legally enforces a dress code in public. Almost all Muslim women wear a headscarf, and showing even an elbow has been verboten since the country’s founding.
- USA Women can wear burqas wherever they want, thanks to the Founding Fathers who included clothing in the constitutional rights to freedom of speech. The burkini is especially popular on beaches in the summer.