By Meral Alizada
For a lot of women wearing the hijab in a non Muslim country is a difficult experience. It is remarkable how a piece of fabric wrapped around the head as customary female dress, a practice stretching back centuries in all four corners of the world, has become such a reaction-inducing symbol of negative association.
The media’s constant association, direct connection and affiliation of terrorists and fanatics with 1.8 billion of humanity, has dehumanised, socially isolated and compelled ordinary Muslims into shouldering responsibility for the media’s favourite caricatures. And yet, it is not the fanatic in Afghanistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia that suffers for their heinous crimes, but the innocent civilians who are directly or indirectly impacted by terrorism themselves.
This programming and mind infiltration has stirred such ignorance in the hearts of otherwise good people, that it has now led to pregnant hijabi women getting attacked, stomped on in broad daylight in Australia for example, or assaulted in Turkey and most recently, a hijabi woman being removed from her flight simply because another man felt ‘uncomfortable’ with her presence.
I saw women who wore the hijab as strong, but I silently and always feared for them, for their safety, their mental health and their place and acceptance in Western society.
My entire life has been testimony to the ease with which Islamophobia is practiced, how casually it rolls off people’s tongues and how it has become triggered by defensible, dapper suited, sweet talking stigma.
Today, Islamophobia is disguised as the justification for community care, liberation of women, anti-extremism measures. These have all led to the social exclusion of Muslims, particularly young Muslims like myself, to whom as well, Britain is home which makes us feel particularly impacted by this isolation programme.
But I did not become aware of this exclusion as much until I began wearing the hijab three months ago. It was then I started experiencing, the treatment of Muslim women in our society first hand.
It began with questions, the first being why I decided to wear the hijab, or why I wear it full stop. While I began to explain, which is in itself, an emotionally laborious task, I also felt a sense of self betrayal, discomfort, in having to justify such a personal decision to people. We dont ask others why they choose to wear a certain garment, we believe in freedom of the self and surely that means the freedom to choose our clothes, but that doesn’t extend to Muslims.
The West considers the hijab to oppress women because it reduces them and places them on unequal footing with men. It is the Western world and only the West that upholds and respects women and gives them inalienable equal rights to men. And yet, the real and only oppression I have experienced is not from simply wearing the hijab, but the reaction of non Muslim people when they see that I do.
It may surprise some to know that it is not the Imam, the Sheikh, neither Islam nor the Quran, that causes any kind of oppression for me, but it is the members of the British society and its liberal fascism. This society considers all other expressions of freedom, respect for experimental lifestyles and the right for women to dress as freely as they wish, but doesn’t grant the same respect or space for me to freely practice my right to cover my head as they do for women who don’t. Both deserve equal respect.
Wearing the hijab has triggered many prying questions, requiring women to explain why they choose to wear something so personal to them. It is unusual to walk around asking why people choose to wear certain clothes and yet we have dedicated so much debate time, policy roundtable discussions, money, energy and resources into debating the extent to which a clothing garment oppresses and reduces women.
I am from a liberal la la land, where the last thing you do is judge people based on what they wear because it’s about what is on the inside. And yet, the scarf on my head has reduced me to my appearance, to my private practice, with each silence at the cash desk, each restaurant service that seems so much slower, more rushed and a general sense of being unwelcome. I see myself dehumanised, made a spectacle over when I am subject to scornful stares and passive aggressiveness.
British, civilised people don’t stare at others in public. So why is it that I cannot enjoy a coffee with a friend in West Finchley without consistent, piercing staring by a middle aged lady and her daughter? So foreign and strange looking I am, that they both have to take a very good look at scarf girl.
I see myself reduced when a month in, I was verbally assaulted and threatened by a drunk man who roared asking again and again, amongst other profanities, why we Muslims just didn’t get it when we’re told we’re not welcome.
I am oppressed and stripped of my own voice, of my own identity when I am required to answer for the actions of some minoritarian, crazed, psychopathic group that happen to be Muslim. I, a person as normal as the next, who has nothing to do with an act committed on the other side of the world, am expected to condemn, apologise and take responsibility for these acts. Yet, requiring that any other religious group do the same would be absurd: to demand the Hindus of England apologise for Hindu extremist actions against Muslims in India would be absurd. To insist that the Jews of England apologise for settler violence in the occupied Palestinian territories, would be absurd. But somehow, it is not when it comes to Muslims.
I am stripped of my voice when I am excluded, when I am pushed to the side and put under radar, when a society that can make no space for me takes away my opportunities. I am dehumanised when I long to get home as early as I am able to, in fear of being attacked or assaulted.
So you see, much of the accusations of oppression, reduction, dehumanisation turn out, at least in my case, to come from the very people pointing fingers.
I grew up labelled as Osama Bin Ladin’s daughter, subject to my primary school teacher’s racial abuse. At age 7, our windows were smashed and my little sister punched and spat at, simply because we look different. It died out at university, but now that I have started wearing the hijab, it has become an every day encounter.
My experience is not unusual, it is not to be singled out as unique, this is a daily reality for countless other Muslims in Europe who feel compelled to reduce and minimise themselves to an existence based around a feeling of having to ask for permission rather than tolerance, or simply respect, which we are rarely granted.
We forget, even after promising we wouldn’t, that religious persecution is a process, that it begins with the drunk man who screams at a religious minority to leave, to the differential treatment, the social exclusion and finally being driven out of your own country, as my French born sisters in faith are being forced to do. But it is a process that can be reversed in its most accelerating stages.
Today, hundreds of thousands of your colleagues, your neighbours, ultimately your fellow human beings live in a gradually enlarging and encompassing fear for their future, their livelihood and their safety. This is a real fear, a real concern and it is time to regain our voices and break free from the chains of complicity with the exclusion, marginalisation and subhuman treatment we are subjected to each day. The casualty of Islamophobia needs to be unravelled and treated as other racial discrimination. Changing the dialogue, the attitude and the response to Islamophobia is the very first step towards a very important, very current movement of respect and protection of the sanctity of the human freedom and right to choose their lifestyle and be granted the space and freedom to pursue it in peace.
Meral Alizada is a third year Law student at the University of Surrey.