Opinion: Sexual Harassment in the British Asian Muslim Community Must Be Taken More Seriously

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Sexual harassment is a taboo subject in British Muslim society and we need to call men out for their actions. The way a woman dresses is not an excuse for a man to think it’s acceptable to sexually demean her.

Every woman I know has experienced some form of sexual harassment. And the tragic murder of Sarah Everard has highlighted threats made against women from black and ethnic minorities.

New figures published by the government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that in England and Wales, fewer than one in six women report crimes of sexual assault to the police. The ONS figures also show adults of black and mixed ethnicity were more likely to experience sexual assault.

This doesn’t surprise me at all. During my early teens, that’s when I experienced the most sexual harassment by men and boys leering at me and making inappropriate sexual remarks about my body. Twice there was a verbal threat of sexual violence and I had to contact the police. It wasn’t taken very seriously and I felt extremely vulnerable and at that time – I had lost my faith in the police. I even decided to learn karate to defend myself in case one day, the verbal turned physical.

It’s important to understand that sexual harassment is different from sexual assault. Sexual harassment is any kind of unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature, which makes you feel humiliated or intimidated, or that creates a hostile environment. When someone calls you insulting sexual names, talks about you in a sexual way that makes you feel uncomfortable (like commenting on your body), or spreads sexual rumours about you, that’s sexual harassment. 

As a society, I feel that women, in particular, have excused sexual harassment because it happens so often. It’s just become a part of our everyday lives. I am always cautious of the threat of imminent danger, especially if I am coming home late from work. I take precautions like walking where its brightly lit, sitting on a train carriage where there are several people, I don’t listen to my headphones so that I can hear who is around me, I call my husband so he knows what time to expect me home and I don’t wear heels – in case I need to run. For some people, this might seem a little over the top but it helps me feel safe.

Throughout my life, I have been warned to cover up my body more by older women to avoid unwanted attention. I understand one of the reasons why women choose to wear a hijab is to protect them from men’s desire. But it doesn’t matter what you wear or don’t wear, if a man wants to sexually harass you – he will. Wearing a hijab, jilbab, niqab, burka, or loose clothing does not make you exempt from experiencing sexual harassment. In fact, statistics suggest it could exacerbate it.

According to the monitoring group Tell Mama, in 2015 alone there was a 326 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims in the UK, with Muslim women more likely to be attacked. And in 2017, data showed that nearly 6 out of 10 victims of anti-Muslim hate were women and 8 in 10 of the perpetrators were male, re-affirming previous findings over the years that anti-Muslim hate or Islamophobia at a street level is also male on female abuse in addition to anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry.

Gendered Islamophobia means that Muslim women who wear a veil are subject to sexual harassment because of the negative stereotypes associated with oppression and terrorism.

It’s also important to highlight that Muslim and non–Muslim men are perpetrators too. Sexual harassment is a taboo subject in British Muslim society and we need to call men out for their actions. The way a woman dresses is not an excuse for a man to think it’s acceptable to sexually demean her. And it infuriates me when Muslim women promote this idea rather than openly challenge it.

It’s hard to ignore that sexual harassment against Muslim women from black and ethnic minorities is on the rise. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed the UK government will do “everything we can” to protect women. This includes new proposals to spend an additional £25 million for better lighting and CCTV, and a pilot scheme which would see plain-clothes officers in pubs and clubs. But will this truly protect Muslim women? 

According to Tell Mama, Islamophobia increased dramatically by 375% after Boris Johnson write a column referring to veiled Muslim women as ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank-robbers’. He also previously claimed Islamophobia is a “natural reaction to Islam.” 

Therefore it’s hard for me to fully believe that sexual harassment against British Asian Muslim women is taken as seriously compared to sexual harassment against non-Muslim women. One of the more positive plans that make me feel optimistic is that UK police will record ‘misogyny’ related crimes as ‘hate crimes’ on an experimental basis. It should help give a truer representation of the sexual harassment that Muslim women suffer, which might eventually mean our safety is valued more.

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