Sunday Life reporter donned traditional Muslim veil to see what reaction she would get from people in Northern Ireland
Muslims in Northern Ireland have been the targets for a number of well documentated, sickening hate crimes.
And following the Paris massacre by IS terrorists it wasn’t long before thugs petrolbombed the home of a Muslim man and his wife in North Antrim.
That hate crime was an extreme example of Islamophobia, but last week I decided to test the reaction of ordinary people in local towns to a woman dressed in a burka.
Obviously only a minority of Muslim women wear burkas in public in the British Isles but it was still disturbing to witness the reaction of many ordinary people to this image of a Muslim woman as I donned a burka for a day.
In Bangor one man called me “a terrorist” while in Carrick a woman snarled at me to show my face as I was “not in my own country now”.
But there was kindness and consideration too from a few lovely strangers.
Dressed head to toe in black, first up for the test was Ballymena, the scene of a recent terrifying Islamophobic hate crime.
Clearly, a woman in a burka is not an everyday sight in Northern Ireland and horrified looks and gasps were the order of the day from most passers-by — although to be fair, most people then moved on with their business, ignoring me. Some, though, couldn’t resist mouthing off.
As I walked through a shopping centre a twentysomething woman laughed in my face while beady-eyed security guards followed my every move.
As I waited by the back of a shopping centre, a security man kept a close eye on me while ignoring catty giggling teenagers who attempted to photograph me in his presence before shouting: “She’s f*****g trying to break into cars.” As I turned towards them they retreated into a shop.
Another chap in his 70s, who should have known better, tutted, shook his head and remarked: “Look at the state of that, it’s got to be a man.”
Next up was Antrim where as I lingered outside the courthouse two police officers took the trouble to drive past me twice, slowing down to stare out the bulletproof window each time.
Moments later a short man in a quilted jacket deliberately slowed to intensely stare at the veiled woman in front of him. He seemed dumbfounded as he put his face into mine, not saying a word.
Then there was the young mums at the local shop with their children. One teenage mother commented: “Don’t look at her, she’s mental... would give you nightmares, that.”
There was a similarly chilly reception in Carrickfergus when my short wait outside the Job and Benefits Office ruffled feathers. Standing at the gate, the disgusted looks kept on coming and within minutes my presence was greeted on Facebook with some not-so-charming comments such as: “Pull it [the burka] off the c**t and dig her” and “What the f**k that should have been moved on to f**k.”
Another suggested a woman in a burka looked like “rubbish left out for the bin man” while another remarked I “was doing the double” or “maybe the poor whore was just baltic”.
And it didn’t stop there.
As I stepped onto the zebra crossing I was approached by a blonde woman who spat out: “Do you dress like that in your own country? Because you’re not there now. Take that veil off and show your face.”
To be fair, some people in Carrick suspected my walkabout was a stunt after spotting my photographer.
My tour ended in Bangor’s High Street, where crossing at the lights a man in his late 50s barked “terrorist” as he passed me. Then sidling up to a café window to read a menu, an elderly couple in front of me turned on their heels because “we’re not eating in there with her”.
As I stood on my own outside a well-known bookshop I noticed that an exclusion zone was forming around me, made very clear by the woman who told her son to “get away from her, don’t stand near her.”
And as I looked in the window of a shop, one worker mouthed: “I hope to f**k she’s not coming in here.”
But it wasn’t all suspicion, fear and downright rudeness. There was kindness.
In Carrickfergus a middle-aged man greeted me sweetly. saying: “As-salamu alaykum [peace be upon you].”
And in Bangor a lovely, elderly woman smiled and moved aside to make sure I could read the bus time-tables.
Inside my burka I smiled back at these kind strangers. Sadly, they couldn’t see my gratitude.