London, United Kingdom – Twenty-three-year-old Mariah Idrissi had no idea she would almost overnight become the face of hijab-wearing women in the UK.
She didn’t expect that a brief appearance in an advertisement for clothing retailer H&M encouraging people to recycle clothes would spur the police to ask her to speak at an event about Islamophobia.
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And Idrissi certainly didn’t expect her fleeting appearance in the ad would be called “part of a slow but unstoppable adaptation of this country to Islam” – as it was in a column by Daily Mail writer Peter Hitchens.
Idrissi, who owns a London salon with her cousin, said the start of her modelling career has taught her that the hijab, the headscarf worn by some Muslim women, is seen as anything but “normal” in the UK.
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“I didn’t expect this to happen in a million years – I thought it was a quick ad, two seconds. I didn’t think anyone would notice me,” she told Al Jazeera.
Idrissi said she has received both positive and negative reactions from both Muslims and non-Muslims – but regardless, she is determined to continue in the fashion industry.
“I see comments [from Muslim women] saying ‘she’s asking for all this attention and wearing hijab – it doesn’t make sense’, and other [non-Muslim] people saying they won’t shop at H&M any more,” she said.
“It makes it obvious that there is … definitely a problem where people don’t see the hijab as normal. So I want to make the fashion world really diverse and that will, hopefully, help every other area in life as well.”
Idrissi’s first tentative step into the spotlight came at about the same time another hijab-wearing woman, Nadiya Hussain, won the Great British Bake Off – a hugely popular televised baking competition in the UK.
Hussain’s win, while largely met with support and delight from the show’s viewers, was also heralded as a victory for “political correctness”, with cries that if any other competitor had made a chocolate mosque, as Hussain had once done during the show, then the outcome would have been different.
Idrissi and Hussain hit the headlines at about the same time, causing British news outlets to celebrate the “normalisation” of women wearing the headscarf.
But despite this apparent acceptance of Islamic sartorial choices, women in the UK who wear the hijab or other forms of veiling are still the most frequent victims of Islamophobic attacks.
In September, the Metropolitan Police released statistics showing what it deemed anti-Islam assaults had risen 70 percent in the past year, from 478 to 816. Of the victims about 60 percent were female, according to TellMAMA, an NGO that monitors Islamophobia in the UK.
About the same time these figures were released, footage was posted online of a Muslim teenage girl being knocked unconscious by an attacker on a London street.
In June, a mother was attacked by a gang of women as she picked her children up from school, reportedly for “wearing a headscarf”. The woman told the Evening Standard newspaper the three women “pulled my headscarf off and started punching and kicking me”.
TellMAMA released a report last month that included interviews with victims of Islamophobia. The report did not include interviewees’ last names.
“When I became identifiably Muslim, I got nasty looks, threats and abuse, and that’s an everyday experience especially because I am a white British Muslim,” Sara said.
“When I suffer abuse in public, people walk off or stare… I was on my way to the shops and people shouted at me, ‘Why don’t we chop your head off?’… Anti-Muslim hate is normal,” she said.
But it is not just verbal and physical attacks that women who wear the hijab in the UK face. Many, while never having been abused outright, say they are judged in their personal and professional lives for what they choose to wear.
Asma Khan, a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University, told Al Jazeera she detected a difference in the way she was treated, depending on whether or not she was wearing a hijab.
“I don’t wear the hijab day-to-day. In all honesty, this is probably partly because of the way in which this might be perceived by others,” Khan said.
“I do, however, wear the hijab on occasion and I am struck by the difference in the way I feel that I am received in public. My everyday world becomes a much more strange and hostile place. I feel a lot more conscious in familiar surroundings, and feel that I am treated with a certain coldness and have to work harder to appear ‘normal’.”
Having grown up in Britain in the 1980s, Khan said she became used to periodic backlashes against Muslims following certain world events.
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Today there is a “constant Islamophobic hum” in the public sphere, partly caused by daily reporting on armed groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram.
The idea that certain headline-making events can lead to spikes in Islamophobia is supported by TellMAMA’s report, “We fear for our lives: offline and online experiences of anti-Muslim hostility”, published this October.
“Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and Tunisia in 2015, and in Woolwich, southeast London where British Army soldier Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered in 2013, we have seen a sharp rise in anti-Muslim attacks,” the report stated.
“These incidents have occurred offline where mosques have been targeted, Muslim women have had their hijab [headscarf] or niqab [face veil] pulled off, Muslim men have been attacked, and racist graffiti has been scrawled against Muslim graves and properties.
“Moreover, there has been a spike in online anti-Muslim attacks where Muslims have been targeted by campaigns of cyber-bullying, cyber-harassment, cyber-incitement and threats of offline violence.”
Despite mounting evidence that Islamophobia is becoming more common in the UK, Idrissi remains positive and confident she can use her new and unexpected fame to make a difference.
“I want to use modelling to get to a point where I can break down prejudices about hijab,” said Idrissi.
“There are women who might be more highly qualified for a position, but because she wears a hijab people think she won’t be qualified or capable… At the end of the day, this is a scarf on my head. It doesn’t affect my brain.”