A woman lights a candle at a makeshift memorial near the Bataclan theatre in Paris, where 89 people were killed in the attacks. Photograph: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
You feel responsible for what happened. When you watched the news you thought, please God, don’t let them be Muslims. But they were. And they did it. A night of murder. And before that a day of bombing in a land that was forgotten; not white enough, not European enough, not secular enough to be remembered. And before that, somewhere else too foreign to care about; it always happens there anyway, it’s not worth reporting every death from there anyway. They’re not white enough anyway.
You didn’t go out the day after you had heard. Was it your fault? No, but you felt like it was. And you were scared. Hearing about all the backlash your kind faced in the aftermath frightened you. You knew it wasn’t your fault but paradoxically you felt responsible. Fear gripped you as you ate your toast and had to watch your husband go out to work, travelling on the bus as he usually does. Would someone attack him? Clearing away the breakfast dishes, you thought about the day ahead and how you had to go and buy groceries. You were not prepared. You were nervous.
In the end, you decided to make a change. It wasn’t a choice really, you had to; a necessary evil to protect yourself, to protect your children when you took them with you. Taking the pink scarf out of your closet, you thought for one minute if it was the right thing to do. It was. There was no doubt in your mind as you closed the door to the closet, the door to your doubts. Pins, a mirror and a hair band, while the children waited. They were patient with you; somehow, they knew you needed the extra time, when usually you just wrapped the scarf, pinned it and off you went. Not this time; this time it couldn’t look like it used to. Not if you wanted to keep them safe, keep yourself safe. This time, you would wear it differently.
I saw the news on social media since we didn’t turn on the television when our little one was awake. My husband and I had discussed it and exchanged mutual disgust. It was a day like any other, because the world had already changed, over ten years ago. This just meant there was more pain and it was getting closer to home yet again. We did wonder about the day before and the day before that in lands too foreign to care about; but deep down we knew, white, Western lives were what mattered and they always would.
Breakfast taken care of and bag packed, my husband headed out, on the bus, as he always did, and I didn’t give it a second thought. I knew I would go out later that day, so I readied the slow cooker and prepared the Little One. I threw on my grey headscarf, wrapped as I always did, taking care to cover my hair, neck and chest as I always did. This wasn’t some sacred, oriental ritual, it was just part of what I wore, everyday.
On the street, I passed her. I had seen her before and before she had greeted me, but this time her gaze was deliberately averted, busying herself with her children. I wondered why she didn’t stop to say salaam like she had done before. I didn’t know her well, but we had met a few times in the grocery store, where we were both headed. She didn’t want to talk, that much clear, so she gave me a wide berth, crossing the road though she didn’t have to.
Eyes down, on her children, anywhere but me, she looked different and I didn’t realise what it was until after I had paid for my shopping. It was her hijaab. Wrapped like a Sikh’s turban, it only covered her hair, and barely that. Wisps had escaped out of the back and sides and they betrayed her. They betrayed her fear; I could smell it on her as it rolled off her in waves. She didn’t want to be outside and she darted suspicious glances at anyone who walked too close, pulling her children closer, not allowing her toddler to leave her side.
I couldn’t imagine what had made her behave like this. Surely not the recent news? The only explanation was that her husband was probably beating her. I resolved to speak her the next time I saw her, give her an outlet and a confidante. Yes, I would help her.
So above are two partially-fictional accounts inspired by something I read on social media recently. Two different reactions to the same thing that I was compelled to write after realising that so many of the Muslim women I knew were anxious, apprehensive and sometimes, totally terrified when faced with the prospect of going out in the wake of the Paris attacks. It surprised me that so many were so concerned about their safety and initially I put it down to scaremongering and the culture of victim hood that is plaguing the world recently: our fear of you is greater than your fear of us.
I dug deeper and saw there had been random assaults, verbal and physical on Muslims across the nation before and after the attacks. So it had happened and the fear wasn’t unfounded. Did this mean I needed to be worried? Was I arrogant in supposing that I was safe from abuse given that I looked quite openly Muslim in my headscarf?
If I can be entirely honest, it hadn’t even occurred to me to be worried about retaliation in the wake of the Paris attacks. It wasn’t arrogance, it wasn’t the belief that I was untouchable or my North-Eastern roots of being hard-as-nails; it just hadn’t occurred to me that it could happen. And here is why: I didn’t believe I had done anything wrong. Let me just say that again: I didn’t believe I had done anything wrong. Why would someone attack me for something a bunch of psychopaths had done? I hadn’t harmed anyone, I wasn’t there, I didn’t pull any triggers. Was I still supposed to feel guilty? Why? Because I was Muslim?
I’m not judging anyone for being concerned or worried about their safety when going out; after all, there have been attacks on random Muslims, and Sikhs too for that matter. Therefore, the genuine fear felt by many Muslims isn’t unfounded. And this is where I have a problem; this is where I feel the real decisive power of these actions lie; not in murder and carnage, but in something much more powerful: fear and distrust. Fear and distrust are key: if we can make you fear us, you will distrust everyone, look at everyone with suspicion, so that they in turn fear you too. And thus, the circle is complete. I have a real problem with accepting this, because not only is it a powerful aim of attacks like the one that occurred recently, but it’s also in the reporting of such attacks. Choosing to ignore similar atrocities, just days before, in lands far too foreign to care about perpetuates the notion that white, Western lives matter more, that we are more important than them. We need to fear them because they are coming for us.
It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me to be worried about going out as a Muslim after these attacks; why would I be worried? I hadn’t done anything wrong. However, looking at the number of random verbal and physical assaults, motivated by hatred of Muslims has made me realise: people I know are genuinely scared and worried about their families. They think twice before getting on public transport, they check over their shoulder when buckling their toddlers into their car seats, they change their appearance, making their hijaab look less “Muslim”, as if reducing the aura of “Muslimness” that surrounds them will make them less of a desirable target. They haven’t done anything wrong, but I understand now.
I now know all of this and I’m still not going to be apprehensive about going out and living my life with my Small Person. Why? Why am I not looking for ways to look less Muslim? Why am I not going over scenarios in my head of what could potentially happen when I go to the supermarket? Why? Because I don’t believe I have done anything wrong. I’m not arrogant. I’m not untouchable. I’m not hard-as-nails. I just don’t believe I have done anything wrong.
By Umma Rahma
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