feminism / gender / harassment / interviews / life / mental health / November 2015: Taboos / sisterhood / stereotypes / topical

We Spoke To a Muslim Woman About Islamophobia & Racial Abuse

Tamanna Miah, 22, is an activist and university student from Sevenoaks, Kent. She started receiving racial abuse as young as five years old. At primary and secondary school, she was told to “go die, go die in hell, go burn in a microwave,” and that she was “a paki, you don’t belong here, go back to where you belong.” She was beaten up, and recalls that at break time in primary school classmates would take her milk and throw it back on to her, so she was left smelling of milk for the rest of the day. She still has marks on her legs from where should was repeatedly kicked and beaten up years ago, and notes that “no matter how much I try and cover it up, it will never go away.”

She does not just mean the physical blemishes, but the mental health ones, too. She says as a child she was very suicidal and that once bullying happens to you, you remember it, because “it’s like a nightmare.” She still suffers from mental health issues today, and the abuse has continued to affect her all the way through the education system – including at university.

WATCH TAMANNA TALKING ABOUT HATE CRIMES AND ISLAMOPHOBIA ON THE 2015 EDITION OF CRIMEWATCH

In her first year, her two housemates made her life a living hell. They were so abusive that she only felt safe if she locked herself in her room or bathroom. She says: “They used to prank me, call me names, be racist about my religion and skin colour, my food, shove and push me around… they posted on social media about me and it got to the point that my friends and family were afraid to visit me because they didn’t want any abuse from my housemates.”

She contacted her university but found them to be unhelpful. She attended meetings and she got the impression that they didn’t really care, because it didn’t affect their contracts in terms of accommodation. After several months of pressure, they finally allowed Tamanna to move, but she thinks they did not react quickly enough or give her enough support. She nearly failed her first year as she couldn’t concentrate at home, and she feels that people are more likely to listen to the minority than the majority when it comes to issues like this.

As she has got older, Tamanna says the abuse she receives has evolved into Islamophobia. She was walking through the high-street recently and there was a middle aged woman having a cigarette. The woman walked up to Tamanna and asked her: “Have you got a bomb in that bag?” Tamanna was stunned, but turned around and explained: “No, have a look. My mum has just given me food to take to university,” and the woman replied, “Oh, I’m only joking,” which Tamanna strongly believed was not the case.

According to recent reports, Islamophobic crime in London is up by 70% in London, and Tamanna believes a lot of the attitudes are absorbed from every day media, politicians and celebrities. She says: “The British people look to these as a reliable source of news and if you’re fed negativity on a subject or a people it’s obviously going to have an effect on the public: millions of people read these tabloids, watch TV and listen to the radio.” Most recently, a pensioner has been charged with the attempted murder of a Muslim woman after pushing her into an oncoming train seconds after it arrived on the platform.

When Tamanna gets on the train, older people make comments or sit away from her, or stare at her in disgust. Even young kids shout things: a group of young children shouted at her as she was walking down the road comments including: “coconut, paki and brown” and she had no idea why.

These things happen to her in the daytime, and people she knows have had their head scarves ripped off and have been pushed or shoved. She says: “I don’t wear a head scarf so I don’t get physical abuse, which is partly the reason why I don’t wear one. If I’m getting this abuse without wearing one, imagine what I’d get with a veil on. It’s a shame, because I don’t feel that people should have to hide things like that; I think people should be able to walk down the road freely and safely without having to look over their shoulder.”

Tamanna often ignores comments in the street, but sometimes will ask, “What is wrong with you?” and explain “No, of course I’m not a terrorist.”

She says a lot of bystanders ignore these situations when they occur, and she thinks that’s because they are worried, scared and unsure – they don’t want to cause more problems. She thinks with any kind of confrontational incident – if you saw a fight, for example – some people would intervene and some people wouldn’t.

What can people who have never experienced any kind of racial abuse do to help? Tamanna thinks that if you witness something, you should always report it: don’t just be another bystander, because that’s part of the problem. Another piece of advice is to call people out, whether publically or privately, on things like social media. She says: “I know a lot of people who share Britain First posts, and I try and inform them that Britain First is a very extreme group of people, and I ask whether they’re sure they know what kind of thing they’re sharing. Sometimes it sparks an argument but in calling them out, you at least feel like you’ve done your bit.”

Figures show that the majority of Islamophobic attacks are directed towards women, with 60% happening towards women on the street, according to MAMA, an organisation that monitors Islamophobic attacks. Tamanna thinks her gender does come into play in the abuse she receives, because people view girls as weaker, more vulnerable and more easily open to attack. She believes they’re less likely to report an attack or stand up to their aggressors.

READ MORE ON ISLAMOPHOBIC ATTACKS TOWARDS WOMEN IN THE UK

Tamanna also feels frustrated when she is constantly asked to condemn terrorists, because she doesn’t see why she should have to. She thinks it’s like someone always coming up to you when there’s a fight down the road, and saying: “This person has got into a fight down the road, you should go and condemn them,” when you don’t know them and you’ve never met them. She says: “Sometimes I feel I do have to condemn them, as someone often has to, but I get fed up of this constant pressure to have some kind of responsibility for events I’m not a part of.”

Tamanna wants more education on hate crimes for the younger generation and thinks it’s important for the older generation, too. She says: “Some of the examples I’ve given you are from older people and their views are entrenched. When their kids are growing up they pass it on and it’s a real shame, because having an eight year old shout abuse makes you think: ‘Kids aren’t born to be racist, they’ve obviously been taught that somewhere.’”

She adds: “Every time I see a tabloid it’s ‘a Muslim has done this, a Muslim has killed this person,’ when really they’re a very small minority. The majority of us are peaceful and it’s sad that only during religious festivals like Ramadan do we see positive stories surrounding Muslim people.”

If you are suffering from racial abuse, Tamanna’s advice is to record it, whether it’s a telephone call, a text message or a screen shot. “From my experience, without evidence, you don’t get very far. I had to record evidence of the abuse I was receiving at university to be taken seriously.”

She also advises that you do your best not to retaliate, as the more you retaliate the more you dig yourself in a hole. You should also report it, regardless of how big or small it is, because if you don’t it’s not going to get any better: “So many incidents go unreported and we need the figures to be able to say to the government, ‘Look at the amount of crime happening towards these people,’ and the more we get the more chances we have of making it prominent to them and creating change.”

Tamanna kept quiet about her bullying for a long time and her friends were shocked when she started a project with Fixers, an organisation that helps 16-25 year olds in the UK to try and ‘fix’ an issue they have been personally affected by:

She received a lot of media attention and was invited to go on to The James O’Brien show to discuss whether Britain was racist. She says: “I was very naïve when I went on that show, and I didn’t realise what kind of show it was – it was very Jeremy Kyle-esque.” She says there were a lot of extreme people on the show and it caused a storm on Twitter, and Tamanna believes social media is another real issue for abuse.

She says: “It used to be that when you were younger you got beaten up at school and that was the end of it, but now you’ve got people harassing you online. They can find out where you live and it is very scary.

“After the O’Brien show I had negative (as well as positive) comments on Twitter, and sometimes I felt like I had to respond because I thought, ‘You’re completely wrong here and I can’t just let you get away with that,’ but on the other hand I got really fed up of explaining myself over and over again and began to just block or mute people. It’s just people going out of their way to make someone else’s life a misery and it’s tiring.”

Is spite of all this, Tamanna thinks the UK has moved on a lot since she was at primary school. There are a lot more organisations out there to support younger people and she herself has been into to schools to give workshops on taboo issues and even helped with teacher training.

However, she believes that there’s still a lot more to be done, and she hopes that people won’t become bombarded by media reports reflecting a negative image of Muslims. She wants to do a Master’s degree and get a job in either the media or politics, and hopes to give a voice for the voiceless in a world where only certain angles are reported on.

– Katherine Hockley

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