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The Muslim Girl on the Train

It took an unpleasant encounter with an Islamophobe on the tube to make me realise that my sense of victory over a cowardly man was actually the result of a set of too low expectations.

The whole sorry episode went like this: on Friday at midday, I was en route to the office. I sat at the end of what was a relatively empty carriage. A man sat opposite me with his son and a few others were dotted to my left.

About halfway through my journey, I felt a slight discomfort, and raised my head from my phone to find a late middle-aged man standing at my left near the doors. He was of medium build, not too tall but certainly taller than me.

It wasn’t so much his form that caught my attention; rather, it was his face. He was shaking his head and was looking at me in disgust in a very slow and deliberate manner. Shocked and uncomfortable, I looked back down and away from him.

After a little while, I looked back up at him again, thinking I had perhaps misinterpreted his stares. Again, he stared dead at me, with a disgusted look on his face and deliberately shook his head very slowly from left to right.

Again, I looked away, but at this point I was beginning to feel really uncomfortable – exactly how he wanted me to feel and so I looked at him again and said: “You shouldn’t be too quick to judge people”.

I said it loud enough for him to hear but not aggressively or loud enough for anyone else to hear. This clearly angered him. He quickly denied what he had done, saying: “I wasn’t judging you.”

“You just looked at me and twice you shook your head at me in disgust,” I said.

“I wasn’t shaking my head at you,” he said. “But I am now.”

His responses were very loud and aggressive. By this point the whole carriage could hear that something was going on between us.

Then, shockingly, he said: “How dare you try to intimidate me.”

A reality check is necessary here. I am a 5’4”, roughly 65kg Muslim woman who was sitting alone in the corner of the train so the accusation that I intimidated him merely by confronting him for what he was doing just highlights this man’s mindset.

“I’m not intimidating you, so don’t try and play reverse victimisation on me,” I said.

Then suddenly, this man, who had just played the victim, said: “Oh yeah; you guys are all victims aren’t you? You guys like to play that card. I know what your game is, it’s all the same.”

Should it come as a surprise the man said this when the government’s Prevent cheerleaders diminish Islamophobia by framing those who sound the alarm as people who “promote victimhood” and “grievances” that echo “Islamist” ideology?[1]

The Manichean worldview which paradoxically Prevent claims to tackle whilst perpetuating it, was palpable in this man’s designator directed at me: “you guys”.

This theme continued as he continued his rant.

I told him quite clearly that he should stop being a coward and say what he was so desperately trying to say through undertones and innuendo and just admit that he is a bigoted racist.

Again, his response to being called a racist and a bigot was that “the whole country was”. I quickly reminded him that the fact he felt he could speak on behalf of the country was again evidence and true to the title I had given him and that he was not representative of this country but rather was an idiot.

Just before he shot out of the doors like the coward he was, he pulled a face at me like a child lost for words and bolted from the carriage.

By this point, several people on the tube had heard us and some of them laughed uncomfortably, while others shook their heads while trying to show me that they thought he was indeed an idiot.

As he left, a man across from me in the carriage asked if I was okay as did a couple of others. It was at that point that I realised the adrenaline, preparing me for fight or flight, had completely taken over my trembling fingers as I attempted to send a text message. The message was incomprehensible. As I reflected afterwards, I realised that at one point I had actually moved my bag to one side so that I could be in a better position physically to defend myself should he have tried to physically attack me.

Upon reflection after my incident, it occurred to me that I didn’t even think of reporting the event to the police, so that the people charged with our safety can more accurately grasp the Muslim reality and do something about it.

Nonetheless, this inaction on my part told me that I had trivialised something important in my own mind, perhaps as a protective mechanism due to the shock of what had happened, but also perhaps due to the fact that deep down, I wasn’t really too surprised at what had taken place.

This is self-censorship in action, and it is the Islamophobe’s greatest weapon.

This is not what Muslim women should have to contend with in this country and yet this is a reality. It is not my everyday experience; in fact, it rarely ever happens to me, but I know as someone who belongs to the category of “Muslim woman”, we bear the brunt of violent Islamophobia. It is our collective experience every day.

The fact that travelling on public transport for a woman in hijab may well turn into an encounter like this – or worse – has not come about by the evil of simple people alone, however.

There are some disturbing parallels to this man’s responses.

That a late middle-aged man who singled me out with his expressions of disgust and felt entitled to do so without me standing up for myself and then tried to play the victim when I did, is encouraged by a government that tacitly agrees with this type of warped, passive-aggressive, Islamophobic approach to Muslims. It is an approach that frames Muslims as a collective in a state of potentiality, where the endpoint is terrorism.

As someone working daily for an organisation that documents the abuses born of Prevent within the Islamophobic framework of laws that justify it, I know that the government has created an environment where middle-aged non-Muslim men feel entitled to intimidate a Muslim woman minding her own business on the tube.

It’s these policies that tell Muslim women what we can and can’t wear by signifying religiosity as a sign of extremism, how to raise our children, what books to read – because the logic goes that if we don’t fall in line, then we’re “intimidating” the state. And if we complain, of course, we are “playing the victim”.

In other words, the government has a hard time accepting there is something fundamentally wrong in policy and consequently, society.

How else can one interpret the government’s callous approach to the 2015 working group on anti-Muslim hatred where the “basic message appeared to be that the government was simply not that interested in anti-Muslim hatred”?

How else can one interpret the laughable “independent report on race”, which disintegrated faster than it was put together. This was because it surfaced that the government was “bending” the work of its commission to fit “a more palatable” political narrative.[2]

How else can we interpret the surreal Islamophobia inquiry into the Conservative party which concluded that it was not institutionally Islamophobic, whilst being lambasted for unfit complaints procedure and exclusion of Muslims from the inquiry?[3]

This trivialising attitude feeds the ongoing fear-based narrative around Islam broadly, but also, on a pointed level, supports counter-extremism policies like Prevent that are doing deep damage to society.

It is for this precise reason that we at Prevent Watch are pursuing a truly independent review into Prevent to step outside of this vicious circle of harms perpetuated followed by whitewash.

I do wonder where I’d be now, had there been nobody but him and me in that carriage. Perhaps the obvious courage required to square up to Muslim woman is less required when alone. At the same time, I don’t need to wonder so much what the response from Islamophobes in government would be though, had something even worse happened in their name. It wouldn’t be an admission of Islamophobia, that’s for sure.

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] https://policyexchange.org.uk/islamist-attacks-on-sara-khan-show-importance-of-extremism-commissioner/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/19/islamophobia-government-engagement-muslims-anti-hatred-taskforce

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jun/03/islamophobia-inquiry-deliberately-excluded-muslim-tories-claims-ex-mep

About Dr Layla Aitlhadj

Dr Layla is Director at Prevent Watch. Prevent Watch offers free support and information for individuals impacted by Prevent.


  1. You never know how an encounter with someone who has probably never seen or engaged with a Muslim woman, will go. I recently ended up in a predominantly white, English town for an appointment. Due to coronavirus restrictions, I was standing in a small area outside the main door, waiting for my lift home. An older English gentleman, about the age of my dad, turned up, and, as there wasn’t really much space for both of us, I mumbled something about how I would wait outside and proceeded to go out. He ignored me in that cold, as if you don’t exist manner that the English are so good at. As he had arrived too early, he wasn’t allowed in but instead of continuing to wait in the area I had just left, he walked outside to where I was.

    He looked like my primary school teacher from decades ago, who would tell the naughty boys to bend over and then would hit their bottoms with a wooden ruler, even though it was illegal by then! A bit like how I imagine Mr. Brocklehurst to have looked, but not as mean, and a bit like Victor Meldrew, but not as grumpy. For those who are too young to know who I’m talking about, he had a Jeremy Clarkson vibe about him.

    It was just the two of us and I hate awkward silences so I think I blurted out, “They won’t let you in until it’s your appointment time.” I can’t remember what he replied but he decided that he wanted to ask me questions about my dress code (my “burka” as he put it). “Lots of Muslim girls wear western clothes now don’t they?” he asked, seemingly seriously but maybe there was a hint of smugness there. “Yes, they do,” I replied, “as do all of my family and relatives. Only I dress like this.” “Oh really?” he replied. “Yes, I’m just a bit funny like that.” I’m sure he imagined that others had made me wear it, but this would have dispelled that view. In fact, I first wore a niqaab before marriage, on September 10th 2001. The world changed the day after, but I chose to continue wearing it. Before he could continue his line of questioning I, also slightly smugly, interjected with, “I have a BSc degree in…and a MA and I’m a qualified…” Well, you’re certainly educating me,” he replied.

    He then proceeded to ask me questions about my mum and dad, my children, my husband, arranged marriage, all the usual questions that one would expect from someone whose only knowledge of Islam to have come from a biased mainstream media and a reckless government. “We live with our fathers until we get married and then we live with our husbands,” I told him. Despite being the only religious one among my family and relatives, from a young age, I ended up being more educated and qualified than almost all of them (male and female) and was the only one not to not have had an arranged marriage, and I married outside my race. I put these successes down to being religious as, for me, it was religion that taught me to be disciplined, to always try my best and to have higher aspirations, traits that many of the others lacked.

    He soon realised that everything I was mentioning was within female only environments and segregation. “Why can’t we all just be together, men and women,” he asked? “Well, we’re not supposed to have relationships before marriage,“ I replied candidly, “and it just makes it easier doesn’t it.” He mentioned something about Muslim men. “They’re not supposed to have relationships before marriage either,” I answered. “Are they not?” he replied, sounding surprised. “No they’re not,” I replied confidently and proudly.

    At some point, the receptionist came outside to tell him that he was too early. He was too proud to admit to her that he had made a mistake but he did, slightly sheepishly, confide to me that he had probably got his times mixed up! She looked at us. I can’t imagine what was going through her head. We must have looked rather strange, certainly a sight that she had probably never seen before. An older, 6ft or so English gentleman towering over a foot shorter niqaabi woman whose jilbaab has been described as being able to fit 3 of her.

    “I bet your son doesn’t have to wear a burka,” he retorted in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. “Well, no he doesn’t,” I explained, “but did you know that Muslim men have to cover between their navel and their knees?” “Do they really?” he answered, surprised. “Yes, if they go swimming, they aren’t allowed to wear swimming trunks. They have to wear big, baggy shorts,” I continued.

    My lift arrived and he was quick to notice that I had a ‘female taxi driver’. “Well of course,” I answered light-heartedly and frankly. I ended our conversation with something along the lines of, “Well you take care Mr…sir and have a nice day.” He seemed pleased and impressed that I had paid enough attention to catch his name when the receptionist had spoken to him. He asked my name which I told him and then I, also tongue-in-cheek, added, “No relation to…” at which he laughed loudly and heartily.

    I felt that there was still much that he wanted to ask and I didn’t get to ask anything. I hope that our exchange was frank. I like to think that because he felt comfortable to ask whatever was in his head, he was being genuine. There was no need to be two-faced. Not having had any conversations with older Englishmen (or any men outside my family) for a couple of decades, I’m not sure how well I did. As he asked about my mum and dad and the contact I have with them, I think that he may have a daughter and maybe some of the things that I said, although hard to imagine being the norm here, still resonated with him at some level.

    In light of the recent violent attacks on women by men and the news that 26 Met policemen, men who we put our trust in, have committed foul and filthy sex crimes in the past five years, I hope that he can appreciate that the protection of fathers and then husbands, the dress code of both men and women and the segregation between them, rather than being oppressive, are, in fact something wholesome.

  2. Really articulate, inspiring read. Islamophobia (as in hatred of Islam and Islamic expression, not the wierd “its a type of racism” one) is something we sisters face often.

    Pieces like this inspire confidence. A sister who didn’t let that passive aggression pass and is taking on the Islamophobic prevent policy to boot.

    My question though, why didn’t anyone even intervene? A deeper problem in society which probably needs a dedicated piece.

  3. Isn’t there a middle position between government concerns about terrorism and extremism in the name of Islam and Islamophobia as described here?

    • Governments approach to terrorism premises Islamophobia as it is based on the Huntingtonian Clash of Civilisations thesis.

      Not sure what middle ground can be established here.

  4. SubhaanAllah such a brave, powerful and touching read. I wish the rest of society would open their eyes up to the Islamophobia entrenched in society and it’s damaging effects.

    Jazaakillahu khayran for sharing.

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