‘A Few Weeks Ago, My Friend’s Sister Was Attacked For Wearing A Veil’ – The Reality Of Being A Young Muslim Woman In The UK Today



by Clare Thorp |
Published on

This week a 15-year-old schoolgirl from Bristol was reported to be the latest Brit to travel to Syria to join extremist Islamic groups. Yusra Hussien told her parents she was going on a school trip before she disappeared, but is believed to have been groomed online by radical groups.

Counter-terrorism experts in the UK believe about 50 British girls and women have joined ISIS so far, making up about a tenth of those known to have travelled to Syria to fight. It’s not just a UK issue. Hundreds of young women and girls are leaving their homes in Western countries to join Islamist fighters, with some as young as 14 being recruited via social media. ISIS also recently called for Muslims to commit murders in the streets of those Western countries opposing the Islamic State.

The issue has prompted a new campaign, launched last week by counter extreme organisation Inspire and backed by home secretary Theresa May – called Making A Stand. It calls on women to challenge extremism in their communities and show their support with the #makingastand hashtag.

READ MORE: Egyptian Woman Stages Most Provocative Anti ISIS Protest We’ve Seen. It’s Dirty

It follows another social media campaign called Not In My Name, in which Muslims have taken to Twitter to condemn the actions of Islamic State, using the #notinmyname hashtag. Started by London-based charity Active Change Foundation, it has since spread worldwide, with Barack Obama praising those getting involved in a speech last week.

Zahra Qadir, a 21-year-old student from east London, felt compelled to get involved after the murder of James Foley – the first of several Westerners to be publicly and brutally killed by ISIS.

‘After James Foley was killed I realised that I needed to do something,’ she tells* The Debrief.* ‘I couldn’t sit back and watch people try and use my faith for something horrific like that. Islamic State is claiming to represent Islam and that’s completely wrong. They are out there to tarnish the religion and lead people astray. They’re like a cancer that’s spread in the religion.’

Zahra, alongside others, has appeared in a video for the campaign, denouncing the actions of Islamic terror groups. ‘I’m very shy and don’t really like going in front of the camera, but what they’ve done pushed me to have my voice heard,’ she explains. ‘It’s just made me feel so ashamed and upset to think they are claiming to be representatives of Islam.’

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She says seeing images of James Foley and ISIS’s other victims, including Brit David Haines, was doubly upsetting for her. ‘One, because they’re killing innocent people, and in the most barbaric way,’ she says. ‘But also because young people like myself are being emotionally abused and manipulated into believing that this is a just cause.’

There’s yet another reason why Zahra felt compelled to act: ‘A few weeks ago my friend’s sister was attacked because she was wearing a veil. That really affected me because I cover up too and I really worry about that happening to me,’she says.

Zahra isn’t alone. This week Sir Peter Fahy, chief constable of Greater Manchester Police said that videos showing Muslim extremists beheading Western hostages had led to a marked increase in Islamaphobia in the UK, with a marked increase in the number of hate crimes being carried out against innocent Muslims.

‘I live in a very diverse area where I’ve never felt afraid – but the other week I went out to meet a friend and I walked back on my own in the evening, and maybe I was just being paranoid, but I felt so afraid of being attacked. I felt so vulnerable and I’ve never felt like that before in my life. The thing that would hurt me the most would be if someone came up to me and pulled my headscarf off.’

Zahra – who now works two days at week at the Active Change Foundation – says it is young people who are particularly vulnerable to extremism, especially when they feel like they don’t have a voice in society.

‘They’re approached by these people and they’re told, “You need to stand up and fight for your brother and sisters.” They get into their heads such a way that they think, “I have to do this.” We need to make them feel a part of their country and realise that the way to be heard is to create a dialogue with the government.’

Extremist groups have been targeting new recruits online – but Zahra says they work on the ground, too. ‘When I was in college, these groups would come and give leaflets out. They were preying on young people and keeping an eye out for those who looked vulnerable.’

She’s seen first hand how easily extremist behavior can take hold – such as when a friend started expressing strong anti-government views. ‘She never really used to listen to what anyone had to say. She thought everything was a conspiracy,’ says Zahra. ‘I got her to come to a few of the workshops run by the Active Change Foundation and that really helped her. She’s still very passionate about the issues she believes in, but I’ve helped her see that the way to get yourself heard is to talk about it, write letters and campaign.’

READ MORE: Meet The Young British Muslims Looking To Rebrand Their Religion

Others she’s encountered haven’t been so lucky. ‘Since working at ACF I’ve met people who have been to prison because they’ve been involved in terrorist groups. Speaking to them, you realise they were abused and manipulated into joining. One of them spent four years in prison. Not all of them are evil people – it’s just a wrong decision they made in life and no one was there to save them.

‘That’s why I want to educate people so they don’t fall into that trap in the first place, and let them know that what these groups are preaching is wrong. We’ve got plans for the future too, to use this campaign to educate people and work on a grass roots level. Colleges and schools are where we really need to target. That’s where the problem lies.’

Zahra fully supports the #makingastand campaign and thinks it’s especially important that Muslim women in particular speak up. ‘People think we’re oppressed, people think we don’t have a voice and it’s going to counter that and show that you know what – just because I’m wearing a veil doesn’t mean that I don’t have a voice. Muslim women aren’t oppressed.’

But some people disagree with campaigns like #makingastand and #notinmyname. They believe it makes Muslims look apologetic for their faith. ‘I’m not here to apologise because those people don’t represent me at all,’ says Zahra. ‘It’s our Islamic duty to show everybody that these people don’t represent us, that they have nothing to do with us. The word ‘jihad’ means defending the religion, and I’m doing my best to defend my religion in the best way possible.’

She continues: ‘I really didn’t think the campaign would get such a big response. It’s made me realise that a small simple message can go so far. I want to carry on doing as much as I can to give back to my community. When I go home and go to sleep at night it makes me feel really happy that I’m a part of this.’

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Follow Clare on Twitter @thorpers

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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