'I've had serious death threats': Three Muslim women reflect as UN vows to combat Islamophobia

(From left to right) Lipa Nessa, Apsana Begum MP, and Tasnim Nazeer. Credit: Lipa Nessa/Apsana Begum/Tasnim Nazeer

By Zahra Manji, ITV News Assistant News Editor

"I've had serious death threats, I've had threats to kidnap me and threats of sexual violence."

Apsana Begum MP is no stranger to discrimination. As a visibly Muslim woman living in the UK, and the first and only hijab-wearing MP, she has endured both Islamophobic and misogynistic attacks.

Her comments come on the UN’s International Day to Combat Islamophobia on Friday.

A pertinent day when anti-Muslim hate in the UK has more than tripled since October 7 - the largest number over five months since the Tell MAMA project began in 2012.

On that day, militant group Hamas launched an incursion into Israel in which 1,200 people were killed. Since then more than 31,000 Palestinians, majority women and children, have been killed in Israel's subsequent assault on Gaza.

Those who are visibly Muslim often feel the brunt of anti-Muslim hate, bombarded by racist stereotypes and subjected to societal inequalities.

ITV News spoke to three prominent Muslim women, each pioneers in their field, about what it’s like to be visibly Muslim in a society where hate crime is on the rise.

Apsana Begum MP spoke to ITV News about the threats to her safety. Credit: UK Parliament

“When I started wearing the hijab, I didn't see anybody like myself in Parliament,” Apsana, MP for Poplar and Limehouse, reflected.

Assumptions were often made about her as soon as she entered political rooms, but this didn't deter her from entering public office.

“I endured a series of racist attacks, whilst on my campaign trail, and it was really quite horrendous," she said, with threats to rip off her hijab in public.

She felt the trolling had been legitimised by the prime minister at the time, Boris Johnson, who had previously said Muslim women wearing burqas "looked like letter boxes".

His comments had proven to have directly correlated to a 300% increase in hate crimes towards Muslims. She was shocked with the abuse but said she’s "immune to it now because it got so much."

The ongoing security threats had caused Apsana to consider not continuing but knew she had a “strong responsibility and duty” to the underrepresented.

She feels that being the first and only hijab-wearing MP is a huge milestone.

"It's an achievement in terms of diversity and inclusion in Parliament, and I think that should be celebrated, and valued.

"We need to challenge these narratives head on and create a safe space for each other."

With such deep-rooted stereotypes, it can also deter aspiring athletes from pursuing their goals and careers.

Former semi-pro footballer and sport activist, Lipa Nessa, said she wants to change the world "with a hijab on her head and a ball at her feet."

Lipa started wearing hijab when she was 15 and soon saw a noticeable difference on the pitch.

"As soon as I looked different, I was alienated. My name is not a very Muslim name, so it was never an issue until I decided to wear it and people realised, 'Oh, she's a Muslim. And she's a visible Muslim.'

"I did stick out like a sore thumb, and it subtly educated me that not everyone likes us."

She faced abuse from coaches and even spectators.

Lipa Nessa was made to feel like she didn’t belong in the world of sport. Credit: Lipa Nessa

"During my first away game the opposition’s parents made aeroplane noises and booed me every time I received the ball... I was still a child," she remembered.

Lipa was even told to take “that stupid thing off” her head by a coach she had previously considered a friend.

"We should be judged on merit, but unfortunately we live in a society where looks matter," she said.

She suddenly felt like she didn’t belong in the world of sport, a world she had loved for so long.

"Football became forced rather than fun. I started asking myself how to get out of training. Can I fake an injury?”

It wasn’t until Lipa moved to a more diverse team with a younger, more educated coach that she began to feel accepted and discover her love for football again.

"It was so refreshing; I didn’t have to apologise for being me."

She has since been a champion for inclusivity on the pitch, launching a new sports hijab with the Sweaty Betty Foundation.

For Lipa, educating people and working with allies is the first step to changing the negative narrative of Muslims in sport.

Scotland’s first hijab-wearing reporter, Tasnim Nazeer, also started wearing hijab in her teens and noticed day-to-day differences.

"People were just more irritable," she said. One encounter in Glasgow saw a drunk man follow her and her children, swearing at them and calling them terrorists.

Discrimination continued into her career with one colleague telling her that she would be further down the line as a reporter if she didn’t wear her hijab.

"We have to work twice as hard to get a seat around the table,” she told ITV News.

Tasnim feels there are still problems in mainstream visual representation after one social media user said, “we don't want to see that rag, take it off”, after she came off air.

'I think it's an honour to wear the hijab,' Tasnim said. Credit: Tasnim Nazeer

But despite the aggressions and discouragement, she believes the presence of Muslim women should be felt, especially in newsrooms where diverse voices are fundamental.

"We’re not nurtured in the same way as our peers,” she said. "If it's diversity and inclusion that mainstream organisations want, they have to give people a chance."

After speaking to these women about their journeys into their respective industries, a running theme became apparent.

They all concluded that they would never compromise their faith for their career, but instead use it as motivation to break barriers for others.

"It’s a woman’s choice, what she chooses to wear and when," Apsana added.

For these women, it’s all about being authentically and unapologetically themselves, even if that means looking slightly different or working twice as hard to reach the same level as their peers or being victim to hostility.

If they inspired at least one other person to achieve their goals, then they knew it had been worth it.

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