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What's it like being a Muslim woman in Scotland today?

'A THREAT", "a foreigner" and "oppressed".

Those are the three phrases Scotland's young people think of when it comes to Muslim women, according to a study of people aged 11 to 24 by the Amina Muslim Women's Resource Centre in Glasgow.

Staff from Amina, who visit schools and youth groups to educate young non-Muslims about racial stereotyping, found the results shocking considering young people are considered more open-minded and tolerant than their parents and grandparents.

While many Muslim women say such stereotypes do not shape their daily lives, others claim there is a growing hostility towards them.

In the coming weeks, three major events will address the question of what it means to be a Muslim woman in Scotland. One will address how the debate surrounding the Islamic veil is affecting Scottish communities, while the others will look at the experiences of Muslim women and Islamophobia in Scotland.

One young Muslim woman summed up her experiences of being seen as a threat, a foreigner or an oppressed victim, saying the sense of distrust was "subtle" and "something you can feel", adding: "You go in an environment where you are the only person with brown skin: people will be polite to you but you can feel there is a distance, something not spoken ... This is how we feel."

This, as well as the more outrageous incidences of racist abuse, is what these events hope to address.

A recent study by Birmingham University found 58% of those who experience Islamophobia are women and in 80% of those cases, the woman was wearing an item identifying her as Muslim: a headscarf, the hijab, a niqab, which covers the face except for the eyes, or a burqa or full-face veil.

A Private Member's Bill is making its way through the UK Parliament urging the Westminster Government to make it illegal in England and Wales to wear a garment that obscures the face in a public place.

The SNP have vowed to maintain the right of Muslim women to wear the niqab, with Shona Robison MSP, Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport, confirming to Yousaf they have no plans for legislation which will restrict the use of any veil.

At the Amina Muslim Women's Resource Centre, Samina Ansari, a development officer at the helpline, who herself has faced abuse, is convinced Islamophobia and reported instances of it are on the rise, particularly in the last year.

She said: "There was a lot of media hype around the niqab issue and that stirred up a lot of emotions ... The rise in groups like the SDL and the EDL (Scottish and English Defence Leagues, which claim to oppose Islamic extremism), has not helped. There seems to continuously be a lot of negative media coverage around Muslims, around Islam, I can't see that going away in the near future, and I think with a young Muslim population here in Scotland, who perhaps are more vocal than previous generations, they are more likely to come forward."

Tomorrow, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill will visit Amina to hear its concerns about Islamophobia and racism. Staff will challenge him to do more to help.

Amina recently encouraged 400 Muslim women in Scotland to say how they viewed themselves.

One of those who took part in the "I Speak for Myself" campaign was 28-year-old Talat Yaqoob.

A blogger and community campaigner in Edinburgh, Yaqoob says she is a "liberal" Muslim who does not wear a headscarf, but when she visits the mosque, she will dress traditionally and cover her head.

This is when she has experienced people looking at her "differently" which she says makes her paranoid.

Yaqoob said: "I don't think the niqab or the hijab is a way that I need to express my faith, but at the same time, I understand that might be the way someone else is expressing their faith and I believe it is their right to do that … There is still a misunderstanding of what that represents and I think there is an idea of 'that looks different'.

"For me, some of that might be innocent, and I would be very happy if somebody stopped me and said 'what is that you are wearing?' I would have a conversation about that. But the problem arises when people assume there is a negativity surrounding that person because they are wearing something that is related to Islamic culture."

Also tomorrow, a public meeting will be held in Glasgow inviting women to discuss the "increasing hostility" around a woman's right to wear a headscarf or niqab.

Speakers will include Glasgow MSP and Minister for External Affairs and International Development Humza Yousaf, human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar, and journalist Yvonne Ridley, who was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan and converted to Islam after her release.

Ridley, who lives in the Borders and is assistant director general of the West European branch of the International Muslim Women's Union, said the debate was fundamentally a feminist one.

"I think it is very important that a woman is allowed to wear what she wants," she said, "and that is before we even talk about religion.

"Every time a male politician stands up and starts criticising the niqab, it manifests itself in an attack on a Muslim woman. Somewhere some idiot will verbally or physically attack a Muslim woman. I want to take religion out of the equation for a moment and tell men to get out of our wardrobes."

Yousaf described a growing physical and verbal hostility towards women who choose to wear the niqab, veil or hijab. He said: "A lot of people in the Muslim community have approached me, both men and women, more so women, to say they feel under threat. They feel that every time this issue it brought to prominence they are less likely to go out and less likely to be seen in public because of various incidents they fear might happen so I feel it is important we address it.

"What we are witnessing now, over the last few months, is an increase in hostility. I mean hostility in two ways. One is the media agenda, certain elements of the media who are quite happy to turn this into a sensationalist issue. The other element of hostility is [revealed in] a report about how Muslim women are more likely to be under attack from Islamophobia and more likely if they wear the hijab [the Birmingham University study]."

Next month, four seminars will be hosted by Edinburgh University. Dr Rahielah Ali from the University of Newcastle, will speak on Muslim Women and Anti-Muslimness in Scotland. Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and interreligious studies at Edinburgh University, said the veil was surrounded by controversy because of its political connotations, rather than the religion it represents.

She said: "It is not just seen as a sign of religious difference. For a lot of people there is a hidden agenda there and that is why so many people see it as something that is threatening to what they perceive is outside what Scottish Islam looks like or Scottish identity looks like."

There are 76,000 Muslims living in Scotland, according to the 2011 census, making up 1.4% of the population. Aamer Anwar says only around 200 women in Scotland wear the niqab, and yet the debate has become front-page news.

He said: "It's a deliberate attack on the Muslim community because it will very quickly move from the niqab to the hijab to the idea of being a Muslim full stop. It occupies front pages of the national media and can occupy our TV and news items, and chat shows and politicians seems to spend all their time on it.

"In reality, what you are talking about is an extremely tiny minority of the Muslim community, but somehow this is being conducted as if it is a major issue."

Not every Muslim, though, believes there is a toxic anti-Muslim feeling here. Asma Abdalla, 53, came to Scotland in 2000, living in Edinburgh then settling in Glasgow.

From Sudan, she said she has never experienced Islamaphobia, and had been welcomed into the community. She chooses to wear a headscarf: it was part of her culture in Sudan, but since coming here it has become more important to her.

"In the organisations I have worked in, I have not faced anything. It's really very friendly in my area and in my work," she said.

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