Islamophobia affects more of us than you think

Islamophobia affects more of us than you think

By Zahra Niazi

In 2021, in the midst of lock down I was asked to present at an Islamophobia awareness conference. I was reminded of this only a few days ago as on the 15 March it was International Day to Combat Islamophobia, and I kicked myself for not saying anything – anywhere.   

At this conference, I was asked to speak about my own personal experiences as a Muslim woman.  But, when asked to speak about it from a personal perspective – I had a barrage of emotions. I felt hurt, pained and even uncomfortable about it. Since 2021, I have been approached to speak on this very issue, but I refuse to do so publically again.

What is Islamophobia?

In 2019, Bradford (one among other cities) produced its own definition. This definition was informed by research conducted in 2017 which resulted in the Joint Islamophobia Definition Working Group being established.  The Bradford definition is as follow:

“Islamophobia is a direct or indirect act(s) of hatred and discrimination against people (individuals or groups) of Islamic faith on grounds of their belief and practice.’

Our experiences shape who we are

None of the incidences I describe below are isolated. In fact, experiences like these have happened in many different places and under varying circumstances.  This is merely a snapshot.

At the age of 34 I started travelling extensively to meet a goal of reaching 40 countries by the time I was 40. As much as I have enjoyed travelling, no one prepared me for the reality of travelling as a Muslim (alone or with others) especially with the aftermath of 9/11.

Being verbally abused – Whilst in Greece, Athens, I was walking to a well-known world heritage site; the Acropolis, it is renowned for its sunset views. As I turn to sit down at the top of this hill, a stranger walks past me. He spits at my feet and calls me a terrorist and ISIS bride.

Being treated like a potential threat – Whilst in France, Paris, I was excited to see the Eiffel Tower for the first time. I was at a train station and as we’re waiting, I was approached by a man in uniform who makes a straight beeline for me, and asks ‘What are you doing at the train station? What are you waiting for and what do you have in your bag?’. I look up, a little aghast, but cooperate.

Being refused service – This instance was a little surreal. I was in Italy, Venice and I walk into a lovely café, which overlooked the grand canal.  The café was half full, but as I entered, the waiter refused to serve me and asks me to leave. When I ask why, he points at my head.

Receiving threats – Social media was fairly new to me about 10 years ago, and I found it was a great opportunity to speak up for things I was really passionate about in a compassionate way.  I have received a number of messages like these, and they were usually along the lines of, ‘you are a maggot, and people like you (meaning Muslim), need to be exterminated’. Needless to say, each time I received a message like this, my heart jumped into my throat.

Did I report any of these anywhere?  No. I took a deep breath and moved on. 

Perhaps some of these experiences resonate with you, for whatever reason.  I am sorry this has happened to you too.

What you choose to pay attention to – grows

All of these incidences, and there are just too many to count, have left a deep scar.  But that’s not saying for every negative experience, I haven’t met 10 great people – and I hold onto that.  Until 2 years ago, I had not posted pictures or videos of myself online because I feared I would become a target.  I stopped wearing my hijab in places where I thought wearing one would put me in potential harm or risk.  

This doesn’t mean I bury my head in the sand to the issues and challenges we face, but I choose to be proactive about change, and focus on what can be done and celebrate things when we do them well – even if it is one person at a time or small.

What can you do?

Hold space – We live in a district where 30% of our population is Muslim. Where there is movement of people, naturally people from disparate cultures fall into closer proximity and there are resource implications, community tension and feelings of loss, fear and resistance.  But we need to hold space for people to be heard and seen otherwise we will simply stop.  A dysfunctional society benefits no one.

Stand with us – Suffering is normalised, accepted as part and parcel of everyday life. But it doesn’t need to be like this.  Unless this is a discourse we are willing to have, challenge when this happens, become more than bystanders and play an active role as allies.

See it for what it is – My foreign name and my brown skin will always make me different. We can’t talk about Islamophobia without talking about racism and how the relationship between the two interconnects. We can’t address racism or anti-muslim hate sentiment if there is a denial that it happens.

But as always I am an optimistic!  Our identity is more complex; we are not one or the other or one homogenous group; whatever we identify as in different contexts or situations or identities we are imposed by; they impact on us greatly.  But we all can raise awareness, challenge and say no to any form of hate – because we are like a stone that is thrown into the water, we can cause ripples and sometimes that is enough to affect change.

About the author

Zahra is the Strategic Equity, Diversity and Belonging Lead for the Wellbeing Board to support and coordinate collective action to improve our approach to equalities, maximising opportunities, learning and expertise across our place.