By Djazia Bousnina
The first time I was exposed to Islamophobia, I had no idea what it was. Well, that was due to the fact that I am an immigrant from a Muslim country, and to the simple reality of being thirteen at the time. When you are thirteen, you do not think that anyone could hold a grudge against you for something you did not do. It was my third week in Canada. My mom and I were out walking. She was wearing a traditional hijab: a long dress with a scarf. A man stopped his car and glanced at my mother from head to toes. We laughed, assuming he was staring because she was pretty, which she is. Why else would he be staring?
On my third day at school, a guy asked me: How I could be so liberal since I am Muslim? How come I did not wear the hijab? How come I, being female, go to school? At first I thought it was funny. Why would he think all that?
By the end of the first semester, I had failed French. My mom went to see my French teacher. The teacher asked her where my father was and my mother answered that he would not be coming. With laughter the teacher said she is not used to hijabi women taking a role in the education of their kids. My mom got furious that day. I did not understand why. I assumed it was a compliment for my mother’s involvement.
A guy from my history class saw me with my mother at the shopping mall. The next day he asked me how I felt about 9/11. I replied that I felt bad for the people who had died and for their loved ones who had suffered a tragic grief. He asked if I felt sorry since “so called Muslims” committed this crime. I said, “no.” He then told the class that I was pro-terrorists. I cried for two consecutive days. I did not understand why he would say that. Why was me not apologizing a bad thing? Lucky, this was handled by the school’s principal and the guy got suspended for three days; he even apologized. Today we are friends.
I did not know what Islamophobia was until it happened to me at school, to my mother on the street, to my father at the airport, who got searched because he is brown and his name is “Mohamed.” I was once told that I am lucky: I give off “Latina” vibes, so I am not necessarily suspected to be an “Arab,” or even worse a “Muslim”. I took that as a compliment. Too young to understand. So Islamophobia is not the most obvious thing. It starts with comments here and there but can lead to devastating acts of violence.
These microaggressions were the buildup for something bigger. It was the first of April. It was a cold day. My friend and I met after work as we do every Sunday. We went for coffee at the Tim Horton’s facing the Beaudry metro station. I ordered the usual: a medium French Vanilla and danish; she ordered a Mocha with a muffin. We went back to the metro station talking about the usual: boys, girls, school, parents, drama, and what not.
Now if you know anything about me, I play my music really loud. I was going down the escalator when my music stopped and I heard yelling. I took off my headphones to see what was happening and there it was: a middle-aged black women yelling at two Arab girls because they were speaking Arabic. She started calling them “terrorists”, “killers”. It was silent. No one said or did anything, so I went to her and asked her to stop bullying these teenagers.
She stopped and looked at me. “You are one of them, aren’t you? This is why you are the only one defending them. She called me a bunch of names – a “slut”, “terrorist”, “bitch”, and “whore”. I said, “Yes, I am exactly that — a Muslim and an Arab.” I told her that as a person who faced and still faces discrimination she should understand these claims. She said that people like me and her are different. We are murderers and that people will come after us to burn us alive. One thing she said still resonates in my ears: “I will send my son to rape you.”
At this point, no one else has said a word. For the first time I felt afraid because of who I chose to be. She wanted to take this dispute outside to deal with it “like real women do.” I did not. I was too shocked by the words that had left her mouth. I asked the STM agents why they did not do anything. They said that they did not hear anything! How could they not hear when she was yelling? How did they not hear anything when they were present for the whole scene? I started going down the escalator, tears covering my face. A women came after me and told me, “Don’t worry, things like this happen. Just ignore her.” I nodded my head and continued walking.
You might think I was crying because her words hurt me and they did. Words hurt, but silence kills. In psychology we call this the bystander effect. When people are faced with difficult situations they tend to think that they are not responsible because they are not alone; other people could help but not them. I am sorry psychology, but I will not settle down for this. If not you, who? Who is going to speak out? If not now, when? When it’s too late.
Now as you can see, I wear no religious signs of identification. My mother, my sisters, my cousins, my aunts, my friends do. To say that there is not a part of me that is afraid for them is a lie. I am afraid that my bright friends will not get the jobs of their dreams because they have a scarf on their head, that this piece of fabric will limit them from the future they want to have. These preconceived notions go beyond the work force; they attack Islam’s core values. Yes, attack. No, I am not exaggerating.
Apparently we Muslim women are oppressed, specifically those of us who chose to wear the hijab. But saying that women who hide their bodies are oppressed is saying that we women only have power because of our bodies. I am sorry, but I am more than a body and trust me my thoughts are fine too. If you know Islam or if you have talked to Muslim women, most of them will tell you that wearing the hijab was a choice. No, I am not saying that there are not oppressed women who are Muslim. Yes, there are, but they are the exception to the rule. Yes, I do think it is important to talk about it, but we have done too much talking. We have blamed too many girls for not standing up. Do not confuse my religion with an oppressive, aggressive culture because my religion is not one to “force itself” upon others. Stop telling women what to wear; start teaching men to respect. Start teaching men about freedom of choice and expression.
I come from a religious family, and I was taught that MY body is MINE, that when you have a diamond you don’t just show it to the first to come. No, you keep it because not everyone deserves to see its beauty, not everyone deserves to see its glow. In simpler words: not everyone deserves you. You are more than just the shape of it, more than just the surface. No, you are all the beautiful ideas that travel between all the galaxies that live within you. I am not saying that women who choose to show their skin should not be respected. I am saying respect me, for my beliefs, and I will respect you and defend you for the right to exercise yours. Because at the end of the day, no matter what we women are going to wear, patriarchal society will make its way into our skin to call us names, label us this and that. Either we are “sluts” or “prudes,” either we are wearing too much or not enough. So you know what, we might as well do what we want to do.
Now, as a young feminist Muslim woman, I think it is more than just important that we women stick together because WE ARE BOLDER TOGETHER. Feminism is the belief in the social, economic, and political equality of the sexes. To reach that, we have to acknowledge the inequality among women. Muslim women, for example, who are mostly people of color, are treated differently than white women. Being “triple cursed” refers to being visibly Muslim, a woman and a person of color. I am not blaming anyone for anything, but by becoming more aware and realizing the privileges that some women enjoy is how we can reach a more accepting and progressive society. Black, brown, Latina women have less chances in the work force than white women do, and even less if they are visibly Muslim. If we are going to ask men to treat us with respect because we deserve to be treated as such, we should start doing that ourselves. We should stop criticizing each other, stop the girl-on girl hate. Stop telling women that they are not feminists because of their faith. Especially if you don’t know much about it.
If you however insist on talking about oppression, let’s talk about oppression. Let’s talk about our naked bodies in a sandwich commercial. Let’s talk about the oversexualizing of the essence of our existence. Let’s talk about that tight dress that takes your breath away but at least you are “hot.” Let’s talk about those high heels that are killing your feet, but hey “the sex is in the heel.” Let’s talk about that layers of makeup that we wear because we are told we are not pretty enough. Let’s talk about anorexia driven by the want to be as skinny as the Victoria Secret’s model. Let’s talk about the bulimia that kept my friend puking all night until she woke up in the hospital. Let’s talk about how skinny we have to be, but yet we need to have all the curves because it’s all about the ass? Because that is all we are, isn’t it?
I have never understood why the western world labelled us as oppressed? I mean the first woman in Islam, Khadija, the prophet’s wife, was a CEO. Mohammed, our prophet, was an employee. You want to hear something cooler? She proposed to him. Without her we wouldn’t be here today because she financed most of the Muslim movement, but I bet you did not know that? Did you know that, before Islam, some tribes used to bury their daughters alive because of what they had between their legs? Did you know that my religion gave rights to women, such as the right to own land. Do you know why we wear the hijab? Because back in the day free women covered themselves, while slaves did not. We wear the hijab because we are free women, so do not come and tell me how restricted I must feel in it. Did you know that the first university ever was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri, in Morocco? Did you know that my religion calls for men and women to be paid the same, not only for equal work, but because of their equal worth? Before Islam, women were treated like property. In my religion, we do not take our husband’s last name because we are not theirs. We are ours. We however have adopted the western way. In my religion we do not beat women, the most violent a man can get with a woman is to hit her with a handkerchief. I was taught to keep my head high, be strong and confident. Islam taught me how to be a feminist.
I am a woman.
I am a woman by the strength that my mother planted in me.
I am a woman by my father’s gentle words that watered me.
I am woman as my body became a shield to the rocks of expectation and unreachable standards society throws at me.
I am a woman by embracing these emotions that the military men are shamed and ashamed for having.
I am an immigrant.
I am the child that this world created to witness the collision of two cultures: The North, Strong and Free, while being born in Algiers, the White.
I carry both the African blood in my veins and the western words on my tongue.I was taught in the burning sand that we take what we want.
I learned in the cold weather that sometimes we just need to ask for it.
I have within me the history of the countries who have fought colonialism one with 100 years of shedding blood the other with 100 letters.
I have the strength of a warrior and the words of a diplomat.
I am a Muslim.
I was raised with knowledge that no color, no language, no culture separates us: humans.
I was taught that I am more than a body.
That my body is mine. That it shall be respected.
It shall not be looked at by devouring eyes that only see me for its shape.
I have learned that there is no greater pleasure than helping one another.
I have understood that acceptance is the key to coexistence.
I am a person of color.
My skin will never be pale enough to be white nor dark enough to be black.
But that will not stop me to recognize the injustice those with darker skins are carrying.
I will not sit silent when I know that the different pigmentation of their skin has caused slavery and that even today they are stuck in social prejudice.
Some would say that my skin is too light for me to care. Isn’t being human a reason enough to do so?
I and those of my kind have survived social and economic inequality. I and those of my kind have silenced our voices about the false accusations, about the criteria and categorizations set upon us. I and those of my kind have managed to survive. It is getting exhausting. I am done surviving.
But, for some, in the end, I will always be “nasty woman”, another “job stealing” immigrant, a “skin tone” and to top it off a “terrorist.”
I want to finish this with the words of a talented writer, an inspiring woman, who has empowered me, Rupi Kaur, the author of Milk and Honey.
you tell me to quiet down cause
my opinions make me less beautiful
but i was not made with a fire in my belly
so i could be put out
i was not made with a lightness on my tongue
so i could be easy to swallow
i was made heavy
half blade and half silk
difficult to forget and not easy
for the mind to follow.