‘It’s important for Muslim women themselves to have a voice in this narrative and actually set the record straight that we aren’t the threat,’ says Nahella Ashraf
A Muslim woman who was racially assaulted and spat on by a stranger in a restaurant has urged more female Muslims who have experienced hate crime to speak out.
Nahella Ashraf, 46, was wearing a head scarf when she was attacked as she sat around a table with four friends in the restaurant in Hammersmith, London.
Ms Ashraf, from Manchester, was left “shaken” after a man sitting behind her, who was “smartly dressed and well put together”, grabbed her from the side and tried to pull her out of her seat, before launching a barrage of racist remarks and spitting in her face.
“We’d been in there for about 45 minutes and we’d all finished eating. There was a guy sat behind me. I assumed he was getting up to leave but he grabbed me and was screaming at me,” she told The Independent.
“He just grabbed me from the side, my arm. It felt like he was trying to pull me out of my seat. The first thing I remember him saying was something about him not tolerating people like me. Right in my face.
“It all happened really fast. I think the guys behind the counter came out straight away, and got between him and me.
“They asked him what his problem was. He said ‘It’s not me, how can you have her in here?’ and then he spat at me. He leaned forward past this guy and he spat in my face.
“As soon as he did that they started pushing him out. As they were pushing him out, he was just saying something like: ‘Her kind of people kill people’ and ‘They’re the problem’ kind of thing.
“It was racist. He kept saying ‘those kinds of people’. He could’ve grabbed the white woman on the side of me that would’ve been easier, but he went for the Muslim woman in the crowd.”
Police were called to the incident but the suspect had already fled the scene.
Officers were treating the incident as a racially motivated hate crime.
Ms Ashraf, who had been working in London during the week as part of her job as a researcher, said it was the first time she had been physically assaulted because of her race, adding that she was particularly shocked that it had happened in such a public setting.
“I was really shaken up. I was really shocked that it happened somewhere in public,” she said.
“I’ve had people walk past me and shout abuse, but it had never been to the extent that they’ve physically touched me.
“You think it might happen when you’re walking late at night on your own. I’d heard people make comments about me on a bus or a train before, but never when you’re in a group.”
She added the experience had made her realise that while many female Muslim victims of race hate crime choose not to talk about their experience, it was important for victims of such crimes to speak out in order to “set the record straight”.
“Initially I thought I didn’t want to talk about it. But actually it makes me think if it can happen to me in the centre of London, it’s happening everywhere. People just don’t seem able to talk about it,” said Ms Ashraf.
“I think it’s important that we do talk about it. I think it’s important for Muslim women themselves to have a voice in this narrative and actually set the record straight that we aren’t the threat.”
The researcher, who is a member of campaign organisation Stand Up To Racism, said she and her Muslim friends had noticed a marked rise in hate crime against them since the EU referendum, but that it had been steadily rising in recent years.
“I think we’ve seen more since the referendum, there’s no doubt about it. Especially in the first couple of weeks. But definitely over the last couple of years we’ve become more cautious when we’re out and about,” she said.
“A lot of Muslims I know, especially my female Muslim friends, have commented on how it’s gotten worse. We’re a bit more careful about where we go. We’re an easy target nowadays.
“It seems to happen more to Muslim women than to Muslim men, and it’s usually men who are targeting us.
“I think the fact that it’s okay for the media to talk about how we dress ... for any other women it’s not really acceptable to comment on how they dress, but when it comes to Muslim women, it’s seen as open season.
“There's this idea that we’re all submissive and we’re all forced to dress the way we do and we don’t have a voice, and that it’s okay for the rest of the world to speak about us on our behalf and make judgements about us.
“The idea that I’m somehow against British values is just rubbish.”
In response to the attack, Stand Up To Racism’s West London branch held a vigil in Hammersmith in protest against such racist incidents.
Balwinder Rana, convener of Stand Up To Racism in West London, told The Independent the organisation had seen a noticeable rise in hate crimes since the EU referendum.
Mr Rana said: “We were very shocked to hear about this incident. Just a few months ago there was a crime against a Polish centre on the same road.
“We held a vigil in the area to show solidarity, and I was very pleased with the outcome. Nearly 40 people came out in the cold, and we had a fantastic response from passers-by. Many locals signed up to aid our cause.
“The atmosphere around here has changed since the referendum. There has been a spike in these kinds of crimes. Politicians, and also the media, are mainly to blame for spreading the idea that migrants are to blame for the nation’s problems.
“Nahella was born and bred in Manchester – so this is affecting more than just migrants. There’s a toxic atmosphere of fear, and we’re doing all we can to curb this sentiment.”
There was a sharp increase in the number of racially or religiously aggravated crimes recorded by police in England and Wales following the EU referendum, with a 41 per cent rise in July 2016 compared to the same month the year before.
A survey carried out in December showed most British people believe hate crime had got worse since the referendum, with 58 per cent feeling they had increased since the referendum in June and 76 per cent believing hate crime was a problem in the UK today.