Glasgow-born Samina Ansari and her loved ones were assaulted because she was wearing a traditional Islamic hijab, which covers the hair, but not the face.
It happened last year, when Ansari, her husband and their baby were driving along a main road. The gang, armed with bricks and chains and accompanied by a snarling dog, surrounded the car, shouting “get the Paki bastards” and “go back to your own country”, before attempting to smash the car windows.
Samina locked the doors while her husband frantically dialled 999, fearing for the safety of the baby in the back seat. One man brought the chain down on to the windscreen, while another tried to smash in through the passenger window.
Luckily, the young Muslim mother was able to speed off when the men moved away from the front of the car.
“It was racist,” she said. “But it was also Islamophobic. It only lasted a minute-and-a-half, but the trauma lingered for months. I felt too scared to go out walking with my baby in a pram. It was horrible.”
The trauma of the attack pushed Samina into launching a campaign to educate the Scottish public about the veil and Muslim women’s decision to wear it.
She accepts she faces an uphill struggle. Across Europe, hostility is growing against this most visible sign of Islamic faith, with many seeing it as provocative and political, or a sign of male oppression and the subservience of women.
France has now banned the full-face veil under legislation translated as the “Bill Prohibiting Facial Dissimulation in Public Places”. Two women have already been arrested and fined after flaunting the ban.
Paddy Power, the betting agency, is now taking wagers on which European country will be next to ban the veil, with the Netherlands – a land fraught with controversy over how to deal with the so-called “Islamification” of Dutch culture – a clear favourite.
Maryam Namazie, a human rights activist, campaigner and broadcaster, is one of Britain’s strongest critics of the veil. She says women are forced into wearing it and subjugated as a result. Namazie claims that radical, political Islamism is now dominating the discussion and bent on forcing women behind the veil.
“The veil is something we need to challenge,” she says. “Is wearing it a choice for women, given you have an Islamic movement gaining political power and making it compulsory wherever they can? “This Islamist movement can be seen in Britain. A female Muslim councillor in the London borough of Tower Hamlets said she received death threats for not wearing a veil. As a result, she now dresses more conservatively. When you have an Islamic movement that threatens and intimidates people, a woman’s decision is not clear cut. On a large social scale, the veil is imposed upon the large majority of people, even through social pressures.
“I think the full-face-covering niqab should be banned. We also need to stand up to Islamism’s demands to restrict rights for citizens in society.”
It is to counter this view that Samina Ansari and the charity she works for, Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, have made a documentary, Hijab – The Light Behind the Veil, to promote their reasons for wearing the hijab and describing the prejudice they face for donning a veil on a day-to-day basis.
At the launch of the film, politicians, police officers and community leaders gathered to watch it in the hope of gaining a greater understanding of Muslim women’s faith. The film will be distributed to public bodies to help teach state officials about the veil in the words of Islamic women.
The documentary depicts modern women, some of whom hold down high-powered jobs, who have made a religious decision to wear the hijab, a scarf that covers the hair, or the niqab, which covers the entire face. Ansari said: “This film is about educating people. Many people’s images of Muslim women come from television or newspapers, where they are portrayed as oppressed and subjugated, dressed head to toe in black. It’s negative stuff and you never hear anything positive.”
Some Muslim men and women believe wearing a veil is a religious requirement for women, who are required to dress modestly. Others disagree.
The Koran is vague on the issue. Some women wear a full burka and niqab, while others wear a headscarf or simply dress modestly. Wearing the hijab is seen as an affirmation of faith that religious women aspire to as part of their spiritual life.
Hostility to this highly visible declaration of faith has been growing across Europe, with the veil seen by many across the political spectrum as a symbol of what they claim is the creeping Islamisation of the Continent.
In Scotland, William Baikie was jailed last year after pulling the veil off a Saudi woman in Glasgow Central Station and tossing it to the floor. The victim, Anwar Alqahtani, 26, was so traumatised that she became too scared to leave her house.
Despite this, Baikie became a hero to the far right who labelled him the “first European prisoner under Sharia law”.
In France, a retired schoolteacher was sent to court and fined for pulling off a woman’s niqab during a squabble in a clothes shop.
Many of the women filmed by Amina found they were treated differently when they began to wear the veil. Shop-owners began to talk slowly to them, as if they were foreign and didn’t understand English. Colleagues started to insinuate that a man had forced them to wear the veil.
Ansari added: “One woman we spoke to made the decision to wear the veil at work. At first her colleagues made a joke about it, saying that she must have been having a bad hair day, but as she continued to wear it, the other workers began to ask if she was alright. They thought she must be engaged to be married and a guy was forcing her into wearing it, rather than believe it was her personal choice.”
Shamala, from Glasgow, wears the full-face niqab, although she chooses decorated garments rather than austere black. Her decision to cover her face has resulted in abuse from strangers.
She said: “When I step out of my house, I am covered from head to toe, leaving only my feet and hands. I was at the park with my kids and this man in his sixties, with a baby girl in a pram, walked towards me. My youngest child was running and fell over – I wasn’t quick enough to catch him.
“The man said: ‘That’s not on.’ I really thought he was talking about my parenting skills, that I should have been more aware.
“So I turned around with my son in my arms, told him he was alright and the man just started swearing, saying: ‘You don’t belong here, you scare the kids, look at all the kids, they are scared of you.’ That really took me off guard.”
Recent converts find that putting on the veil is the most dramatic and visible part of their conversion.
Jenny Mabrouk, a 36-year-old Dundee housewife with three kids. only started wearing the veil several years later.
She said: “It felt strange at first, being looked at all the time – because that was the opposite of what I wanted to do. My husband didn’t pressurise me into doing it. We were married before I converted and then I made my own decision, because it seemed the right thing to do.”
The veil, Mabrouk says, has “unfortunately, become a negative symbol, associated with terrorism and carrying connotations that the woman wearing it is oppressed. We need to break that down. This is our choice”.
There seems little chance that this choice will be removed in Britain, unlike in France, but Islamic women are under pressure from all sides. Religious voices say they must cover up, secular voices demand they spurn the veil. Ironically, warns the campaign group British Muslims for Secular Democracy, any ban is likely to drive more women to the veil, as a statement of their identity.
The group opposes full-face covering but warns that more women could be compelled to wear it as “a knee-jerk response to what is widely perceived as a growing anti-Muslim feeling”. Dr Shaaz Mahboob, vice-chair of the group, said: “It is true that we need to challenge assumptions within Muslim communities that women are obligated to wear certain items of clothing.
“However, a total ban on the niqab is not the answer.” He says outlawing the veil is counter-produtive and has “only served to exacerbate tensions between various communities in France”.
Extremists are already capitalising on the ammunition provided by the ban. Al-Qaeda internet messageboards are alight with calls to declare jihad on France and any other country that makes wearing the veil illegal.
Even some of the moderate Muslim women the Sunday Herald spoke to hold the view that Islam is under attack in Europe. Although all will condemn violence, there is a very real fear that the French ban is the opening skirmish in a pan-European crackdown on Islam.
Peer behind the veils worn by European Muslim women and there are thousands of nervous faces, anxious about their futures and their place in society.
To watch Amina’s video visit: