Inspiring Leeds students launch anti-Islamophobia projects challenging 'hurtful' misconceptions of faith

Two Leeds students have launched inspiring projects to tackle Islamophobia in the city, as they call for more action to challenge misconceptions about the faith.

By Abbey Maclure
Saturday, 28th November 2020, 6:00 am

They have shared their own experiences of hate crime this Islamophobia Awareness Month, which include being verbally abused and witnessing appalling comments aimed at Muslim people on social media.

It comes as Leeds City Council research shows that Muslim people are most likely to be targeted by religiously-motivated hate crime than any other community in the city.

The Yorkshire Evening Post's Call it Out campaign is sharing real-life experiences of abusive online behaviour, calling on the city to unite in the fight against abuse.

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Photography student Aqsa Kauser, 20, has showcased portraits of young Muslim people in a book

Haleema Saheed, a third year journalism student at Leeds Trinity University, has experienced Islamophobic abuse and has called out the "hurtful" misconceptions about Muslim people that she often witnesses online.

Her own experiences prompted her to launch a website, hijabiculture.com, where she documents abuse aimed at scarf-wearing women while celebrating the achievements of Muslim women in Leeds.

Haleema, 21, told the YEP: "I’ve experienced Islamophobia, not physical threats but verbal abuse. Particularly around the times of terrorist attacks such as the Manchester Arena bombings, I’ve been told to go back to my own country, called a bomber and a terrorist.

"It’s really hurtful. It creates a border between you and everyone else, you’re 'othered' and sometimes it feels like people are trying to alienate you and your religion just because of their own misunderstandings.

Haleema Saheed has launched the website hijabiculture.com (pictured) - where she documents abuse aimed at scarf-wearing women

"We need to raise more awareness and challenge people’s attitudes, especially towards girls wearing scarves.

"There are misconceptions about it being oppressive, about us being forced to wear it - we need to have respect for the choice that girls make and show it in a positive light."

As part of the project, Haleema has interviewed a young Muslim woman who had alcohol thrown over her in a terrifying physical attack.

She is calling for more workshops in Leeds to connect faith groups, and people of no faith, and hopes the website will shine a light on the achievements of young Muslim women.

Aqsa's portrait of Shamsa Kauser, 29, a legal assistant

Haleema added: "I found there was a gap in the market.

"You see the odd story about Islamophobia or a scarf-wearing girl doing something positive, but there is no one place to get positive news, the latest on modest fashion, or stories of amazing scarf-wearing girls like weightlifters or models.

"We need to see more and more people who look like us doing these normal things."

Photography student Aqsa Kauser, 20, exhibited a social engagement project at a pop-up exhibition in Leeds earlier this year.

She showcased portraits of young Muslim people and has compiled their day-in-the-life accounts into a book, which details the Islamophobic slurs and abusive language experienced by Muslims in Leeds.

Aqsa, also a third year student at Leeds Trinity, said: “It was amazing seeing my work on display.

"Through personal experiences of racism and observing the recurring discrimination towards Muslims, I wanted to focus on a topic that I could connect and put all my effort into.

“I wanted to show that we’re people too. With the day-in-the-life images, it’s showing that our lives are practically the same - we go to work and uni, we do the same things.

“People need to be informed, a lot of people misunderstand what our religion is and why we do the things we do."

Haleema added: "Islamophobia isn’t something new, the term was coined in the early 1970s but it’s only recently been recognised as a crime in law. We need workshops to bridge the divide, we need people speaking up about it and more work from the police and the Government.

"People need to take the time to understand the religion, rather than base their assumptions on things they’ve heard. Fact check and make sure you’re being accurate about what it is you’re trying to spread hate about."

• The Call It Out campaign by the Yorkshire Evening Post was launched in July. It is sharing real-life experiences of people from all walks of life who have encountered abusive online behaviour and asking our readers to help play their part in reporting it to account admins, social media platforms and, where needed, the police. The campaign was also highlighted by MP Holly Lynch in Parliament earlier this month.

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