Sabina Nessa's murder & the marginalisation of Muslim women

A placard with the words "End male violence is seen during Sabina Nessa's vigil in London. People attend the vigil of Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old teacher who was killed in Kidbrooke as she walked to a pub in London 5 mins from her home
6 min read
08 October, 2021
Sabina Nessa's murder has once again brought violence against women into the spotlight. However, the UK's relatively apathetic reaction reveals how Muslim women are left especially vulnerable compared with others.

With her ebony hair and striking brown eyes, proudly holding her degree, the image of Sabina Nessa, the 28-year-old primary school teacher who was murdered five minutes from her home in London two weeks ago has dominated the front pages of the newspapers and once again bought into the spotlight the issue of gender-based violence in the UK.

But for many Muslim women, the media coverage of Sabina’s death has highlighted another issue – that of the harmful stereotypes about us which exist in the Western media and society, but also within our own culture and how Muslim women’s voices are being lost in between.

According to friends and family, Sabina was a brilliant teacher and a loving sister so many Muslim women were left asking why newspaper headlines focused on the fact that on the night she was killed, Sabina was going on a date at a local pub? And why was it considered more newsworthy that she was glamorous rather than kind?

"Sabina’s case highlights how many Muslim women feel their voices are being marginalised when it comes to the narrative around Muslim women’s experiences, whether it is within our culture or outside of it"

We all know it shouldn’t matter where she was going or what she was wearing, of course, we do,  but our experiences as Muslim women tell us otherwise because we know how this can be weaponised against us. And yet when Muslim women have expressed their concerns, they have been accused of perpetuating the misogyny they are speaking out against.

At a candlelight vigil held for Sabina in Kidbrooke village, many Muslim women expressed their concerns. Among them was teaching assistant, Naheed Ahmed: “I felt like the media focused too much on her going on a date and going to a pub. It was not relevant to the case. Everyone knows the stigma around Muslim women and dating and alcohol so it felt like they were doing it on purpose but if you say anything, everyone says you are judging her.

“We are not judging her, we are scared for her because we know how people in our community will perceive her. Why didn’t the media focus on her achievements, that she was a teacher who was making a difference to children’s lives?”

Jebina Yasmin Islam, Sabina Nessa's sister, speaks at a candlelight vigil in remembrance of Sabina Nessa [Getty Images]
Jebina Yasmin Islam, Sabina Nessa's sister, speaks at a candlelight vigil in Kidbrooke in remembrance of Sabina's life [Getty Images]

Ultimately language reflects the culture, and rape culture and the culture of misogyny is no different. In the language of gendered violence, the onus is on the woman – what she wears, where she was going, but in the case of Sabina Nessa, the language being used to inadvertently blame the victim has been racialised and perpetuates harmful stereotypes against Muslim women.

We all know that there are some men who choose to rape women, but in the news, it is the appearance and the history of the victim's behaviour that is called into question, instead of the actions of the perpetrator.

Consequently, the actions and behaviour of all women come under scrutiny and in this case, it is the actions of Muslim women. However the spotlight comes from both directions, both within and outside or community.  

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And it seems that this is a recurring pattern when the victims of gendered violence are Muslim women. When Mayra Zulfiqar, a law graduate from Hounslow, was shot dead while on holiday in Pakistan after turning down a marriage proposal, the media’s obsessive interest in the case seemed to be on Mayra as a social media star, a Pakistani Kardashian almost.

However, it isn’t just how Muslim women are framed in media, but also how they are framed in our culture too. Many Muslim women have been angered at how the media framework has left Sabina – and consequently the life choices of all Muslim women – open to judgement within our own communities.

"In the West, there are two stereotypes of Muslim women, the submissive victim or the good girl gone bad. The idea of Muslim women leading a double life continues to be a trope used against us both within and outside our culture"

“The media are going out of the way to point out Sabina was meeting her date at the pub, as they are totally aware Muslims don’t approve of these things. We as Asians already have a bias towards those who live differently from us. We are quick to assume or make judgements,” said Sara Ahmed, who lives close to the park where Sabina’s body was found.

“People are totally aware Muslims don’t approve of these things so maybe the narrative is being pushed deliberately. The point still stands that a woman lost her life whilst walking and we don’t want to lose sight of that. I’m so sad that the media has got us Muslims questioning whether we should care less because of that.”

In the West, there are two stereotypes of Muslim women, the submissive victim or the good girl gone bad. The idea of Muslim women leading a double life continues to be a trope used against us both within and outside our culture. There is no nuance within the conversation when the truth is that many of us have found an identity somewhere in between our Western and Muslim heritage. 

The murder of Sabina Nessa continues to underline the impunity that society shows to Muslim women [Getty Images]
The murder of Sabina Nessa underlines the impunity of UK society towards Muslim women [Getty Images]

For every far-right keyboard warrior suggesting it was an honour killing for her lifestyle choices, there have been plenty of Muslim men and sadly some women as well who have taken to social media to judge her for doing the ordinary things most young people do on a Friday night.

The interplay between the stereotypes of Muslim women within and outside our culture shows that misogyny and race are two sides of the same coin

“There is media bias, but also prejudices within our own people and it is the multi-faceted dynamics of how these stereotypes interplay. Our culture has its views and misogyny within it. We all know women shouldn’t have their actions questioned but we also know the fact of the matter is they will,” said psychologist Lily Sabir.  

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“Instead of asking why she was out, what about identifying how male violence is systematic and perpetual? There were 80 women who have died at the hands of men since Sarah Everard. There continues to be a system which is biased against women of colour, so racial as well as the misogyny factor damage women of colour further.”

Sabina’s case highlights how many Muslim women feel their voices are being marginalised when it comes to the narrative around their experiences, whether it is within our culture or outside of it.

When it comes to Muslim women’s lives, maybe it is about time we started to put their voices at the centre of these conversations instead.

Alia Waheed is a freelance journalist specialising in issues affecting Asian women in the UK and the Indian subcontinent.

Follow her on Twitter: @AliaWaheed