Dispatch from London: “The risk is double as a Muslim woman”

As Conservative PM Theresa May prepares to head off against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in the UK general election, London-based May Osman takes the temperature of her city. We asked the 25-year-old charity professional whether xenophobia has been on the rise since the UK’s recent spate of devastating terror attacks — and whether the weekend’s events in London could tip the election.

By Grace Jennings-Edquist

What’s the current mood in the UK like?

I think the majority of Londoners believe that the best way to tackle hate is with love. My commute definitely felt subdued on Monday after the attacks over the weekend, but the overwhelming sense was that we just have to carry on as normal. London is one of the best cities in the world because it is a melting pot of different cultures, beliefs, and identities —and time and time again, Londoners refuse to let this be shattered by extremists.

At the same time, my father’s Sudanese and my mother’s English, and both are Muslim. If you asked me five years ago whether people would be picked on on the tube for wearing a headscarf, I’d have said, “No, you’d never see something like that happen.” But now, you do.

There has been a spat of xenophobic incidents: Recently, after the Manchester attack, there was a surgeon helping victims, who got some awful racist comments because of his Pakistani ancestry. And immediately after Brexit, a Polish centre in Hammersmith gotvandalised with racist graffiti. There have also been a few incidents on public transport of people singling out Muslim women.

As a result of all this, Muslim women who wear headscarves will probably have to think more wisely about what they’re wearing in public. Women already have to think about those things anyway, that’s a sad fact, especially if going home late or just walking in a dark empty street. But I think the risk is double as a Muslim woman. You’d want to be somewhere where there are other people.

How do you think the recent terror attacks will influence the election results?

I don’t think this attack will directly influence how people vote on Thursday, but there has certainly been more discussion and debate on whether the police have been underfunded and whether we have the right counter-terrorism laws in place. [Eds’ note: Theresa May has promised new terror laws following the London attack. But critics have both accused her of politicising the attack, and criticised her for supporting police cutsprior to the attack. She continues to lose ground ahead of Thursday’s election, so it’s unclear how security concerns will tip the election.]

What’s the media’s role been like in drumming up xenophobic sentiment?
 
It would be interesting to compare headlines to five years ago; I do think there are some newspapers with headlines that try to alienate and scapegoat certain groups in society. But language like that isn’t confined to the media. There was one occasion where [former Conservative Prime Minister] David Cameron talked about “swarms” of people, and he was referring to migrants.

How has it felt having Theresa May, who assumed office when David Cameron resigned following the Brexit vote, as Prime Minister?

As a woman, it is disappointing because you want to be able to champion a woman that is a Prime Minister. You want to be able to look up to her as a role model for all young women. But because her political stance is so far away from anything that I would advocate, it’s more complicated. 

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(Original image: Supplied. Digital design: Grace Jennings-Edquist)