Violence

The Sexual Assault Epidemic That No One Is Talking About

For hijab-wearing women in New York, every subway platform is a danger zone

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The first time Iffat was assaulted while riding the subway, she was on the Newkirk Plaza platform in Brooklyn late one morning two years ago. Iffat was at the B/Q stop with her mother and two younger sisters, waiting for a train into Manhattan. (She asked that her last name be withheld for her safety.)

The station was quiet and mostly empty. Suddenly, a man standing nearby opened the lid of his coffee cup and threw the contents at Iffat’s back. As the hot liquid seeped into her clothes, the attacker turned and sped down the platform. Iffat’s mom wiped off her daughter’s shirt, pleading with the girls not to call after the man or say anything.

Iffat, who was twenty at the time, had only recently started wearing the hijab as a way to get closer to God. At first she thought what happened might have been an innocent mistake — maybe the man had wanted to empty some liquid out of the cup.

No, her mom replied. I saw him do it; it was intentional.

“This person, he legit felt that he could do this to me,” Iffat tells the Voice. “He does not see me as a person to do that. You feel nasty yourself when you see yourself through somebody else’s eyes and they don’t see you as a human.”

Earlier this month, New York City’s Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) released a report, based on surveys with more than 3,000 Muslim, Arab, South Asian, Jewish, and Sikh New Yorkers, charting the prevalence of xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism in the time leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election. The report, which concludes that New Yorkers from these backgrounds face high rates of bias-based harassment, discrimination, and violence, reminds readers that our country’s growing climate of hate isn’t isolated to Southern cities or Republican strongholds.

One statistic in the report was particularly shocking: Of Muslim Arab hijab-wearing women who participated in the survey, more than one in four (27.4 percent) said they had been intentionally pushed or shoved on a subway platform.

The statistic was especially disturbing to the report’s authors. Widad Hassan, the lead adviser for Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities at the CCHR, is also a Muslim Arab woman who wears a hijab. She tells the Voice that after every terrorist attack or negative media blitz about Muslims, the same message is pushed out to hijabis by their friends, family, even social media: Be careful, be cautious, don’t walk too close to the platform edge.

The survey results “actually put a number to something most Muslim women have in their minds,” says Hassan. “One in four, seeing that number — and knowing that it was not only a fear, but an actual experience, that one in four were pushed or shoved — I would say it was both upsetting and shocking.”

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The second time Iffat was attacked, in February 2017, she was on the B100 bus in Brooklyn, en route to the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan. She noticed a man staring at her and tried to ignore him, thinking that maybe he was just drunk. But the man started shouting at her, calling her a terrorist, and yelling, “Take that fucking thing off your head.” She got scared and moved her seat — and he followed her.

“That’s when he pulled my scarf from the back” and tried to pour water from a plastic bottle onto her, Iffat recalls. She says she yelled, “Stop, let me go!” and jumped up from her seat, running to the front of the bus and pleading with the driver to let her off. After he relented and opened the door, Iffat got off the bus and, terrified that the attacker would follow her, ran all the way back home.

Across Europe and other parts of the Global North, research has consistently shown that women are the primary victims of Islamophobic discrimination as well as violent attacks. For her dissertation at the University of Toronto, Sidrah Maysoon Ahmad interviewed 21 Muslim women survivors of Islamophobic violence. “A lot of people would be onboard with seeing Islamophobic violence as racist violence,” Ahmad tells the Voice. “We aren’t there yet to really understand it as gender-based violence.”

Ahmad compares pulling off a woman’s hijab to tearing off her shirt in public – something most people would agree constituted sexual assault: “When it comes to a hijab or niqab [face veil], people don’t have that same visceral reaction” in recognizing the act as a form of nonconsensual undressing or public humiliation. “But we have to remember that the feelings we have about our bodies, and what parts we want to cover or not cover, are completely subjective and socialized.”

After the incident on the bus, Iffat tells the Voice, she felt exactly as she had several years ago — before she had started wearing the hijab — when a man on the street touched her and exposed himself to her. “Those two moments, I didn’t feel a difference in the way that I felt about my body. I felt disgusted in myself,” she says.

Mariam is another New York City resident who’s experienced violence on public transit. Through a translator, the 45-year-old explains how after the 2016 election, as she was waiting to board a train at the 125th Street subway station, a male passenger getting off the train spotted her and then intentionally pushed her. “There was space; there was no need for him to do what he did,” she says. She “could have potentially hurt herself but [I] caught [my] balance.” (Mariam asked for a pseudonym to be used out of concerns for her safety.)

In both Mariam and Iffat’s cases, they said that no bystanders had moved to intervene on their behalf, or even asked if they were all right. Ahmad says this is typical of the women she’s interviewed, something she says often “hurts more than the incident itself.”

Of the New Yorkers surveyed by the CCHR who reported experiencing a bias-based physical assault, most did not report the incident; neither Iffat nor Mariam did so. Hassan blames “a normalization of discrimination – this idea that it wasn’t serious enough to report.” She and other advocates interviewed by the Voice also mentioned language barriers and fears about potential immigration consequences as reasons people are reluctant to go to the police.

Roksana Mun, director of strategy and training at the Jackson Heights-based South Asian community group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), sees a kind of myopia in most conversations about street-based Islamophobic violence, which tend to focus on the perpetrator of the act and not the climate that drives the behavior.

“For us at DRUM, we look at it from the larger institutional perspective of Islamophobia, not just what people experience interpersonally,” Mun says. For decades, she says, local and national counterterrorism policies — the compulsory registration of non-citizen Muslim men post–9/11, the widespread surveillance of New York City Muslims revealed in 2011 by the Associated Press, to the counter-extremism programs put in place by President Obama — have worked to dehumanize Muslims and cast them as dangerous outsiders.

Mun adds that agencies like the NYPD, the FBI, and Department of Homeland Security have exploitedthe fear of racist violence in Muslim communities to build community partnerships with religious institutions and local leaders, and then used these partnerships to plant informants and gather information.

“When people commit these kinds of individual hate violence,” she says, “it’s really a reflection of the broader behavior that’s been enshrined in policies by law enforcement agencies.”

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Ever since she was shoved, Mariam makes sure to be alert and on guard when she travels. She won’t wear shalwar kameez — traditional South Asian dress — when she rides the subway, and she doesn’t enter empty train cars. After being verbally harassed on another city bus in the spring of 2017, Iffat decided to stop wearing her hijab in public, though she admits, “it did kind of strain my relationship with God.” Taking off the hijab hasn’t made Iffat feel safe riding the train, though, and in the past year she’s struggled just to leave the house.

“This entire year I could count on my fingers how many times I’ve been outside or hung out with my friends, because of what happened with me on the public transportation,” says Iffat. “Even coming to [this interview], honestly it took so much mental preparation to do this. But I wanted to do it, and I feel it also has to do with trying to get some sort of control.”

The #MeToo movement has brought new attention to street harassment of women, but Ahmad says she doesn’t think it’s done enough to address the experiences of Muslim women. “I don’t think they’re doing anything” to address gendered Islamophobia, she says. “As a survivor of that specific kind of [Islamophobic] violence, I don’t see myself in that movement. It doesn’t seem connected to the realities of Muslim women.”

Some New Yorkers are taking steps to make their city safer for everyone. The Arab American Association of New York has run bystander intervention trainings to teach people how to address Islamophobic violence when they see it, in tandem with an accompaniment program for Muslim residents fearful of traveling or commuting on their own. The initiative was started in the run-up to the 2016 election, when Islamophobic attacks and harassment began to increase. “We’re trying to get our allies to put their bodies on the line for the people who are directly impacted” by Islamophobic violence, explains AAANY community organizer Reem Ramadan.

Besides calling the police, there are other steps available to people who are victims of discrimination or harassment, including reporting it to CCHR online. People who want to file an official complaint of discrimination can do so in court or through the CCHR’s Law Enforcement Bureau, which is responsible for enforcing New York City’s Human Rights Law. “Nobody should have to live with these daily indignities and consider it as part of their everyday life, and New York City is working hard to change that,” says Hassan.

In March, Ahmad and others launched Rivers of Hope, an online toolkit for women who’ve survived Islamophobic violence, which incorporates a lot of her research documenting women’s experiences with Islamophobic attacks. The kit also includes poetry, information on how to get support, and tips for feeling better in the aftermath of an attack. “Don’t let anyone judge you with how you cope with what happened,” she says. “The incident happened to you. It didn’t happen to anyone else.” To survivors of gendered Islamophobia, she adds: “It’s not your fault, and you’re not alone.”

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