Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the first Muslim woman to attend Cabinet, delivered a speech today at Leicester University, speaking out against the normalisation of Islamophobia in British society.
Warsi says Islamophobia has passed “the dinner – table test” as is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial. According to The Daily Telegraph newspaper, Warsi’s speech will also focus on the media’s all too superficial portrayal of Muslims as either “extremists” or “moderates”, you are either one or the other, you can’t simply be a Muslim.
Writing in the same newspaper, Norman Tebbitt, the well-known defender of immigration and the right of British Pakistanis to support the Pakistan cricket team, launched a scathing attack on Warsi, a member of his own party.
The tone of Tebbitt’s article is quite extraordinary, it very much reads like the old Harry Enfield characters, ‘The Self Righteous Brothers’, and screams “Oi Sayeeda NO!”
Tebbitt writes that had the Baroness sought his advice “I would have told her that the Muslim faith was not discussed over the dinner tables of England, nor in the saloon bars, before large numbers of Muslims came here to our country.” You didn’t seriously expect Tebbitt to miss an opportunity to talk about immigration did you? Why is he linking Islamophobia to Immigration? I, like many of the 2 million Muslims in the UK, are third and fourth generation Britons, born in the UK to immigrant parents. We are British and we are Muslim. We haven’t just arrived off the boat.
Even though Warsi and I are politically at opposite ends of the spectrum, I find myself agreeing with her and I’m glad she had the backbone to raise the issue. I would however have gone a few steps further and said that Islamophobia hasn’t only passed “the dinner – table test” it has also passed the office, canteen, university and school test. Islamophobia is a reality for many British Muslims in their daily lives.
Since the terrorist attacks on New York a decade ago this year, the floodgates opened, and they have remained open ever since. In the past people may have thought twice before making openly Islamophobic comments, or waited for you to walk away before saying what they really thought. Not anymore.
I’m a third generation British Muslim woman of Pakistani heritage. I’ve spent most of my working life around non-Muslims in newsrooms or working in high profile international organisations as a media specialist. I was almost always the only Muslim or the only visible looking Muslim in the department, if not on the floor of the organisation.
Whilst working for an international organisation in London during a unexpected heat wave in the city one summer, I found out that my boss had taken a straw poll in the department to ask my colleagues if they thought I might be hot because of the “layers” I was wearing. The “layers” I should explain was how my boss chose to describe my choice of clothing; a hijab (headscarf) and modest western clothing that cover my arms and legs. When my boss eventually got around to asking me if her assumption that I was overheating was correct. I had to sit her down and tell her that I was a woman in my 30s and perfectly capable of finding an appropriate outfit to wear during a heatwave or any other weather system.
Many other incidents took place, some more serious, to the point that I went home and spoke to my husband and a few friends, and discussed what I should do. They advised that I speak to a Human Resources manager and ask him or her to speak to my boss. In all my years of working this was the first time I took the step of reporting a boss or any other member of staff to HR for Islamophobia – It wasn’t because something like this had never happened before – but because I didn’t have the energy to do so.
It took me a good few months to make that decision – but as the incidents became more and more ridiculous I felt like I had no choice. HR looked into my complaint initially, called me back to have a chat, and told me that my boss had a real interest in Islam, had traveled around the Middle East, and that she even “spoke some Muslim.” I walked away with my head in my hands.
A few months ago I met a young talented junior doctor, a British, Asian, Muslim woman. She happens to wear hijab, and works in a very busy hospital in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK, Manchester.
She told me that once a senior doctor at the hospital asked her if she was going to have a forced marriage, and if so would that increase her chances of becoming a victim of an acid attack? Another more senior doctor wanted to know if her family knew that she was a doctor or did she have to “sneak out of the house to get to work in the mornings?” When I asked the young doctor if her colleagues were joking – she said sadly not – they were very serious and these comments were the tip of the iceberg. She would certainly not be recommending her profession to any woman from her ethnic and religious background.
Follow Shaista on Twitter: @shaistaAziz
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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