The Face of Islamophobia
- Zoya Patel
We are walking through a crowded car park when my mother admits to me that she has a constant humming of fear in her veins.
‘I’m just so visible,’ she says quietly, indicating toward her hijab. ‘I worry about someone taking their anger out on me, driving into me or something.’
This is months after the Westminster terrorist attack in London, where five people were killed and over 50 injured by a vehicle and then violent knife attack, supposedly in the name of Islam. Since then, a counter attack saw one person killed and several injured when a car ran into pedestrians outside a mosque in London.
Mum is scared to walk alone to the café she owns and runs in the small town in New South Wales we have lived in for well over a decade. Recently, she was shopping in the local supermarket, and a man followed her, a few steps behind, muttering racist diatribe, until she turned to confront him.
‘I’m just doing my shopping,’ she said, and he leered before walking away, making her know that the power to end the encounter was in his hands.
These stories make my blood boil. The fact that she has to justify her existence in a public place, where she is using the money she has earned to purchase groceries she pays tax on to make dinner for her family, all of whom are Australian citizens, fills me with a rage so intense it frightens me.
My mother is just one woman of thousands of women in Australia, who has become the unwilling face of both terrorism and ignorance. She is the scapegoat, hunted on both sides of the fence.
I should make it clear that I am not a practising Muslim. I was raised as a Muslim, and chose to part ways with faith of any kind as an adult. I also have a non-Muslim sounding name, and as I am Indian by birth, I don’t look like what most people assume a Muslim woman to look like.
This is an uncomfortable privilege. Because I can ‘pass’ as non-Muslim, I escape many of the pervasive affects of Islamophobia which my mother cannot escape. Similarly, my sisters, brother and father can all fly under the radar publicly, all of us sharing names which are foreign but not obviously Arabic, and a surname that is most often associated with Hinduism. But my mother, her hijab a constant beacon of her faith, is vulnerable to every ugly, or misguided comment or reaction a stranger is likely to bestow upon her.
After the Sydney siege in 2014, Mum told me that she was a little worried about her customers at the café reacting badly to her, as one of the few Muslims any of them had regular interaction with.
‘But everyone was really lovely,’ she said, in relief. ‘Some of them even went out of their way to say that they welcomed me, and that I had nothing to worry about.’
This also makes me furious. Of course my mother is ‘welcome’ here – she is a citizen of this country, and no other. She has contributed over two decades of labour, taxes, and more to seal this connection. Her children have been raised here, more Aussie now than they can ever be Indian.
This is the country where she first started wearing the hijab, and also where she and her husband taught their children how to read Arabic, and how to interpret the Quran.
She doesn’t need a benevolent white saviour to validate her existence in Australia, because it isn’t up for discussion. It’s been validated and formally acknowledged by way of a citizenship ceremony.
And yet, this reassurance from strangers is seen as a positive statement because Muslim Australians are made to feel unstable in their Australian identity by bigotry that homogenises all Muslims under one, extremist banner. Never mind the fact that Islam varies across sects and cultures, or that no true Muslim condones the violence of terrorist organisations such as the so-called Islamic State.
There is a clear irony in Muslim women being the victims of fallout from terrorist acts supposedly committed in their name. Muslim women, as a homogenous entity, are presumed to be inherently victims by the white mass media who sees them as downtrodden, subject to sexist power structures in their families and culture, and forced to wear a hijab as a measure of control over their bodies.
In some cases, these statements are true, and certainly extremist groups that collect under the banner of Islam often support incredibly misogynistic practices. But every woman, Muslim or not, is an individual first with the specific set of circumstances that are borne of her experiences and foundation. My mother is not a victim.
But despite this misplaced victim-identity, Muslim women are also the most likely to experience racism associated with Islamophobia, as their religious identity is so visible. A report released in July on Islamophobia found that 67.7 percent of victims of racism related to Islam were women. To first denigrate Muslim women as victims and then further victimise them is a frustrating contradiction, and one that I feel both angry and guilty about.
By opting out of Islam myself, I am sheltered from this fallout. I can live my life under the guise of being assumed to be either Hindu, Buddhist, or an atheist. When people ask me where I’m from, I can say India safe in the knowledge that my religion isn’t apparent through my ethnicity.
This is a welcome side-benefit of the difficult choice I made at eighteen to live true to myself, and step away from the religion I was raised with. Like many young people raised with religion, I found myself drifting away from the belief system I had relied upon, and finding new philosophies and ideologies that fit better with my personal moral code. It wasn’t easy at the time to ‘come out’ as an atheist, for me or for my family, and it can still feel very destabilising at times to remember the faith I once had, in contrast to my values and belief system now.
But it was still a choice made on my own terms. The most obvious solution for my mother and other Muslim women to guard themselves from racist vitriol would be to stop wearing the hijab – but to do that would be an affront to their faith, their identity, and their self-determination. It is not a choice that would be made freely, as individuals.
Why should they be affected by the consequences of crimes committed by others? Why should they have to stand in for those Muslims whose actions are a direct attack on the the lives and beliefs of most contemporary Muslims?
The way forward is unclear, but it must be steeped in empathy, compassion, and critical engagement with the diverse and ever-changing Muslim identity. My mother is just one woman in her hijab – imagine if she could live her life as such, instead of as a portal to the millions of Muslims in the world today.