This episode of Our Voices focuses on Aisha and her experiences of Islamophobia in the UK. She talks about the racial trauma she has suffered due to looking different and what led her to create ‘Skater Uktis’.
First experiences of racism
Aisha was born and raised in the Middle East but she came to London initially to study. She talks about how comfortable and safe her previous environment had been in comparison to living in the UK. It was being in the UK which first made her feel different to others: “The college I studied in was very white. I was also the only person in my entire college wearing a headscarf. So I stood out like a sore thumb.”
Aisha’s new surroundings became particularly challenging when she witnessed a group of white males at her college who were publicly mocking her religion and her headscarf. This was one of the few times when Aisha witnessed the bitter realities of Islamophobia in the UK. Aisha’s friend stood up to defend the religion saying
“How dare you? How can you say such awful things about Islam? You don’t know anything about it.”
But the males continued insulting the religion until Aisha’s friend revealed that she too was a Muslim, she just happened not to wear the headscarf. This fact finally quietened the boys. It was clear that they had made certain assumptions about Islam and its followers. Aisha asks “What’s the education system teaching these people for them to have such skewed and narrow-minded views towards others?”
The challenges of trying to fit in
Facing prejudice in this way by people who have never spoken to her, or most likely any other practising Muslim, has caused Aisha to feel “hurt and rejected”. She believes that many of the misconceptions people have about Muslims are based on a misrepresentative media narrative. This has caused her to ask herself questions about assimilation:
“To what extent do we water down ourselves and our faith to be accepted, while also holding on to our faith… race, or culture? The thing that makes us who we are.”
Even by asking such questions, it is clear that people have made Aisha feel that it is her responsibility to combat anti-Muslim bigotry by somehow becoming less obviously Muslim. This should not be a requirement in modern, liberal society.
Nevertheless, Aisha openly speaks about the challenges of being a non-white person in the UK:
“Seeing the racism, seeing the Islamophobia – a lot of us have to go the extra mile to be accepted. We have to be extra friendly and extra nice, which isn’t fair, but it’s the reality because otherwise, people will think the worst of you.”
It is clear that the UK stacks the deck against those who do not obviously conform to the majority race or religion. When you sense that both the government and the media are operating against you. It must only intensify the racial trauma that being from a minority background in the UK brings.
A Terrifying Encounter
Since her experience of bigotry at college, Aisha has sadly witnessed 100s of incidents of a similar nature. One particularly hurtful and frightening example of this occurred while she was going door-to-door working for Unicef. She was trying to raise awareness of a refugee crisis but it was at a time. This was during which Islamophobia in the UK was at its height. In her own words:
“This white woman opened her door and it was quite a posh house. She opened the door, saw me and screamed at me, saying get out, get out, and started effing and blinding saying, you get out before I call the police.”
Aisha was naturally shocked at receiving such a reception while attempting to raise awareness of an extremely important cause. She found herself running away from the house in terror. Reflecting afterwards on the experience, she says:
“If I was a white woman without a headscarf standing in front of her, things would have been absolutely different. And that’s the sad reality.”
The experience Aisha suffered had a significant psychological impact. Facing the threat of the police based purely on how she looked made her feel “criminalised and demonised” and caused racial trauma. Such was the trauma she experienced that she needed to take time away from work.
“I never felt so unwanted and unsafe in a country before and I’ve travelled to quite a few countries in my life…this is what Islamophobia in the UK is doing.”
Fighting back against prejudiced preconceptions
Fortunately, Aisha has found a way to battle discrimination against Muslim women via creating Skater Uktis. This is a global organisation of female Muslim skateboarders.
“Our two main goals are to develop ourselves spiritually in our religion as well as to develop ourselves as skateboarders”.
Naturally, Islam and skateboarding are not two things that a stereotypical view of the religion would associate. In this way, Skater Uktis challenges the preconceptions so many people in the UK have about Muslims, particularly Muslim women, by actively showing Muslim women in sports. “We wanted Muslim women to be seen in every scene. We wanted to show that Islam doesn’t limit us, it empowers us to be practising whilst doing the things we love.”
Combating Islamophobia in the UK
As well as challenging stereotypical attitudes of Islam, the organisation has also challenged traditional perceptions of skateboarding. It is often assumed that this is an activity for white males but Skater Uktis shows that Muslim women around the world have a passion for this activity too. The organisation currently exists across 17 different countries, including Australia, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Through the organisation, Aisha believes that she is subtly challenging Islamophobia simply by showing the reality of the Muslim experience. Skater Uktis demonstrates that it’s not necessary for a Muslim woman to water themselves down for acceptance. This is a unique way to fight Islamophobia in the UK and worldwide. Quite the reverse.
By showing the variety of interests a Muslim female can have and by showing how those interests can cross typical cultural and gender divides, Skater Uktis acts as a shining example of how much more we can unite by showing our true selves.
Only in the most insecure and backward-looking of societies should individuals feel unsafe due to not belonging to a majority race or religion. Aisha’s experiences help us to recognise the true, multidimensional human being behind the outside appearance. Being willing to engage with people on a level beyond the superficial is what helps to provide understanding, tolerance and respect. Surely Aisha, just like the rest of us, is entitled to this.