8 Things That Happen When You're Young, British And Muslim In The Weeks Following A Terror Attack
The Debrief: 'You don't want to step outside your front door, you don't want to go online either...it's lonely as hell being young British and Muslim in the weeks following a terror attack.'
As any young woman can attest to, growing up post 7/7 hasn’t been easy. The looming threats of terror attacks, the gender pay gap, the recession and rise in cases of sexual assault are all hard enough to contend with - but factor in being Muslim as well and it gets just a little bit tougher.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few years, you'll know that anti-Muslim hate crime have risen year-on-year. The number of Muslims attacked in London alone had tripled after the Paris attacks and gone up by 70% while race hate crime on the UK’s railway networks have rose by 37% in the past five years.
We’re the target of countless hashtags like #StopIslam and made to feel like the enemy within (more on that later). Oh and according to one leading Muslim theologian we should all be marching in order to show to the rest of the country that we don’t support ISIS. An idea which, frankly, is patronising. I don’t need to march to prove that I’m not secretly thrilled that innocent people have lost their lives. It’s not like we ask every white American to take to the streets to prove they don’t think the same way as Trump, is it? Surely it goes without saying that it's no OK.
But, for every large-scale tragedy that happens around the globe, the week or so that follow mark (even more) heightened uncertainty, isolation and fear. This is the new ‘normal’ for Muslim women like me.
1. You don’t want to step outside your front door
I’m not going to lie: when news of a terror attack breaks, one of my first thoughts turns to ‘I hope they’re not Muslim’. It’s not hard to see why: the wake of the Paris terror attack, France’s Muslim population were instantly targeted. Pigs’ heads were thrown into 26 mosques while one man was left seriously wounded after an Islamophobic knife attack.
'Wearing a headscarf once felt like a normal piece of clothing I’d wear, just like putting on a shirt or trousers. But after the Paris terror attack, I started to feel like an outsider in my own country,' Noor Abdul Jalil, a London-based student, agrees. 'People began to stare at me, particularly tourists who might not have been exposed to women who wear headscarves before. I have considered taking it off to blend in more.'
Most of the women I’ve spoken to (both visible and non-visible), also describe being on ‘tenterhooks’ in the aftermath of an attack, bracing themselves for the inevitable backlash. Granted, I’d trade a night on the tiles for a Domino’s Vegi Supreme and a TOWIE binge at home any day of the week, but why should I have to avoid going to certain places that I normally would simply because I can’t predict other people’s actions?
Zaynab Mirza, a 20-something Education Adviser agrees: 'People who don’t represent my religion in any shape or form are totally screwing things up for the average Muslim who just wants to meet up with their mates or go out to eat like any other person.'
And how do Muslim women fare in places which aren’t as diverse as the capital? Sharmin Jahan, a 23 year old student, who splits her time between Sheffield and London doesn't see a discernible difference: 'I tend to get a lot of awkwardness in Sheffield as I have done when I’ve visited London and many other cities. It's as though people find it difficult to approach me just because I have a headscarf on.'
2. …But you don’t want to go online either
Let’s face it, catching up on Kylie Jenner’s latest shenanigans can wait. I learnt my lesson the hard way after the Brussels terror attack: the last thing you want is to be confronted with trolls desperately scrabbling to out-do each other in 140 characters in an attempt to get their 15 minutes of right-wing fame.
What’s even scarier is that the ever-growing chorus of anti-Muslim views are suddenly legitimised overnight – hell, even celebrated. Yes, the Croydon douchebag might have been arrested for inciting racial hatred but he still receives messages of support today from ‘fans’ all over the UK. It makes you wonder: is he the only one brave enough to vocalise what everyone else could be thinking?
It’s more frustrating seeing ardent defenders of Islam trying to vocalise (in vain) that the actions of a few don’t necessarily reflect 1.6 billion Muslims – let's face it, Barry from the EDL certainly isn't having any of it. Why should we feel the need to have to constantly defend ourselves only to be on the receiving end of even death threats in some cases, like Noor did? It’s an “unpaid, thankless task” as London-based businesswoman Yasmin Choudhury puts it.
'I do feel compelled to get involved when other Muslim women say things like ‘Hey look guys, I’m a Muslim woman and I’m just like you,' Zaynab says. 'Having said that, I’m sick of apologetic posts from Muslims who feel the need to explain on behalf of all the perpetrators that this was nothing to do with our religion. We can’t be expected to apologise and defend every crime which has nothing to do with us.'
Depressingly, even in Muslim-only social spaces [which on the surface seem ‘safer’], you risk getting 'shot at' if you wade into debates. 'One Muslim man told me to go eat pork soup,' Yasmin adds.
And, as if Muslims don’t feel vulnerable enough online in the wake of a terror attack, this is particularly compounded when Islamophobes attempt to ‘ally’ with self-identifying ex-Muslims on Twitter, often interpreting their apostasy as being anti-Muslim. As Eiynah, a Pakistani ex-Muslim illustrator tells me, 'My ex-Muslim voice is hijacked by far right lunatics to further their own xenophonic agenda.'
3. You’re not allowed to mourn
From Beirut to Brussels to Lahore, anytime a human tragedy happens, it's natural to want to publicly grieve. But when you're Muslim, it's not as easy as changing your Facebook photo to the French flag or joining in with #PrayforBrussels - it's almost as if our social channels are subject to more scrutiny than your average 20 something. Sharmin agrees, 'at times I feel as though I can’t pay my respects to innocent lives lost in these horrible attacks because many people turn it into arguments and debates about my religion. It appears that I’m not supposed to sympathise with loss because of the religion I follow.'
If posting seems to go hand-in-hand with inevitable hostility, what then about staying schtum? My silence on social media might save me from confrontation but it’s hard to shake off the guilt, let alone frantically worrying if everyone else perceives it as silently siding with terrorists.
4. You become paranoid about ‘looking Muslim'
Or whatever that means. Apart from the hijab, anyone could actually be Muslim. Yet that hasn’t stopped people from equating brown skin or the full-body burqa with the supposed intention to blow up a bus.
In my case, as a non-visible Muslim woman, people don’t instantly register that I am one unless I mention it (something I can’t deny is useful if I do venture out in the aftermath of an attack). I can get on the tube at rush hour knowing that I’m more likely to be squashed by sweaty armpits than be the subject of a foul-mouthed tirade, get thrown off the tracks or that I’m less likely to be expected to shoulder the entire blame for the Brussels terrorist attack. But when stories like these are so commonplace, almost a ‘normal’ part of my daily newsfeed, it’s hard not to feel relieved that I’m not nearly as ‘identifiable’ as those women were. That doesn’t stop me occasionally feeling guilty though - I get it better but why should I have it 'better' in the first place?
5. You’re secretly proud of women who don’t give a s***
It takes guts to walk out the door each morning knowing that someone could potentially shout 'oi love, what are you hiding?' as happened to one of my mates once on a London bus, her only crime was wearing a headscarf.
Just take Nur Syafiah Sahrom, a student at King’s College London. 'If society continues to relegate women to second-class citizens because of the piece of fabric on their head, then I choose visibility and I choose to stand out,' Sahrom says. 'I’ve never felt tempted to lose a part of my identity simply for the sake of being accepted'.
But some aren’t as brave - Muslim women around the UK are now increasingly abandoning visual monikers in an effort to protect themselves. Fiyaz Mughal, Director of Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), tells me, 'we’ve heard from numerous hijab wearing women that they’ve taken to wearing hats to cover their heads to remain "invisible".'
Yet Sahrom’s found that her hijab has enabled - rather than restricted - her from challenging public opinion and even to dispel myths about Islam. 'Once when I was waiting for the bus, a man told me that only a person without a brain would follow Islam. [But after speaking with him], I could sense that he was softer in his tone of voice as the conversation went on and we ended off on a great note. Had he not known I was Muslim, the conversation wouldn’t have happened. It’s always good to direct all the attention towards positivity, instead of dwelling on feeling victimised because a random man thought you were a terrorist.'
6. You might lose friends
There’s rarely a lot of positives in the aftermath of a terror attack but one thing’s for sure: you get to see your BFFs’ true colours. I used to be the girl who let my friends get away with casual racist jokes. I didn’t want to be that girl who couldn’t take the banter, who got offended easily. But one day I snapped. Tensions were running high after the Lee Rigby murder and one of my then best friends (who we’ll call Leah) took to Facebook to rant about how all Muslims were to blame. I couldn't believe that someone I used to go for Friday night cocktails, shared my wardrobe with and even snogged the same guys had such hateful views on something that was essentially part of my identity.
When I finally did call her out on it after months’ worth of outbursts (one post: 'I can't wait to move to Australia where there's no Muslims', still haunts me to this day), our friendship group effectively became the Cold War: neither one of us were willing to back down and friends had clearly taken sides. One ‘friend’ even claimed she 'didn’t really mean it so why was I being so sensitive?'. Cut to 2016 and we no longer talk although it’s probably safe to say she’s still ranting on her (now private) account.
Admittedly, there were points when I thought if I hadn’t been so argumentative, I wouldn’t have lost years' worth of friendship but then I figured, do I really want a friendship with people like that?
7. Guys don’t have it any easier
It’d be easy to think men ‘get away’ with terror attacks when anti-Muslim hate crime, particularly after a major terrorist attack, seems to target women. But Islamophobic hate crime for both sexes is a 'fairly common British Muslim experience,' Hussein Kesvani, 24, a journalist, says men are just as likely to feel at risk. 'There are times when taking my train home to a fairly white-dominated suburban area where I do feel much more vulnerable because I can’t blend in.'
And he’s just as reluctant to reveal his religion as many of the women I’ve spoken to: '[If asked], I would say "yes, I’m Muslim" or "I come from a Muslim family" and that would be it.'
8. It’s lonely as hell
Islamophobia is uniquely isolating, almost a taboo in a community that should (at least by now) come to expect being branded terrorists. Of the Muslim women I spoke to, they were reluctant to discuss their experiences even in ‘safe’ spaces with their Muslim friends and conflicted about identifying as Muslim (let’s face it, it’s hardly the new vegan, is it?).
And it seem to reflects a wider trend - Zayn Malik the world’s most famous Muslim in Western pop culture, is rarely vocal about his religious identity, only offering this is in 2012 :'[Religion] should be between who and whoever your belief is in. I don’t think you should stick it in people’s faces.' When even he stays schtum, it doesn’t make you exactly feel proud, does it?
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