Every year in middle school, we would have a moment of silence in remembrance of 9/11. And every year, I would bow my head trying to mourn, but my classmates’ attempts to subtly glance at me interrupted my moment of silence. It was as if there was some connection between me and the terrorists because we were a part of the same religion. How could I explain to everyone that the religion I followed was one of peace and respecting others, rather than forcing people to accept a religion in an oppressive manner? Why did I feel like I had to prove that I wasn’t a part of the religion that extremists portrayed and called Islam?
Every time there is a terrorist attack, my stomach clenches in fear. Everytime a shooting happens, my fingers curl up in response. Everytime a bomb goes off, I feel like I’m going to throw up. Why? I have a fear that one of these attacks is carried out by a supposed “Muslim.”
As a Muslim student at Tam, there is this unconscious yet constant pressure to portray myself a certain way, to not make mistakes, and all in the fear that someone will take my actions in the wrong way. It’s the need within myself to make up for all the horrible acts of violence that happen daily and show Muslims in a different light. Many Muslims, like myself, have taken on this responsibility to try to be seen in the best way to compensate for terrorists and extremist groups who are somehow connected to us.
A year ago, I was in the Safeway bathroom changing for basketball practice. It hadn’t even been two minutes when a loud banging started. I called out that I would be done in two minutes and said sorry. The banging kept going and started getting louder. I was getting frustrated and I opened the door intending to tell them that I was done. I barely had my shoes on and had haphazardly wrapped my hijab (head covering worn by Muslim women) around my head. When I opened the door, there was a woman who immediatly came into my face. I could feel the spit on my face as she shreiked, “What the f**k were you doing in there?!” Before I could get a word out, a switch turned off in her head. She had realized I was Muslim. “Oh of course, you’re Muslim? Probably making a bomb in there, you terrorist!” I was so shocked, all I could say was sorry. She shoved me out of the bathroom doorway so hard, I fell to the ground. Then she threw my bag and shoes on top of me and slammed the door while yelling “terrorist” once again. My eyes glassed over in tears and my legs started shaking uncontrollably as I tried to get up. There were customers and Safeway employees who had all heard and seen what the lady had done, but no one came over to help me. There wasn’t one person who even came to say sorry or support me. And that was what had hurt the most. It wasn’t the women’s blatant act of racism. It was the fact that not one person had taken action. They had all looked the other way.
Even in such a liberal community, a few people perpetuate racist incidents. We need to be aware of that. While I’ve been really lucky compared to other Muslims all around the world who sturggle everyday, I would have to be oblivious to not feel the stares and distasteful looks at my hijab or not realize the hidden prejudices when people come up to me asking why I choose to stay in “such an oppressive religion that doesn’t respect women.” The racist undertone is clear as well as their premade assumption about who I am. I would have to be stupid to not understand the message loud and clear when people have said I was a terrorist straight to my face in a grocery store.
We have all heard the repeated statement that “a small group in a religion doesn’t represent everyone” which undoubtedly holds truth but that isn’t what will create a solution to bridge the gap between acceptance and learning. Reaching out and asking questions to clarify rather than assume is how we can come together as a society. Any Muslim will tell you that they prefer answering the harsh questions to having people create an opinion for themselves.
I don’t want to be pitied for going through horrible experiences, but I want people to take a chance and ask me. If it’s a stupid question like if I wear my hijab in the shower, I’ll answer it. If it’s a hard question like if women in Islam are oppressed, I’ll answer it. As a society, we will become more accepting when we learn and understand to clear doubts and misconceptions.