It takes years for me to notice myself doing it whenever I’m with her – the scanning of crowds, the haughty expression on my face, the way I shadow her every step, putting myself between her and other people as often as possible. It’s not just me, either – my sisters and brother are similarly protective of my mother.
Where does this defensive stance come from? My mother is not a well-known public figure, nor is she a person given to triggering controversy. She is not limited in her capacity to protect herself.
But my mother is also no longer one person, an individual in control of how others interact with her. My mother is a Muslim woman. She is a symbol of global conflict, of terrorism, of religious oppression. She is an unwilling ambassador and an inherent ‘other’ to the many Australians who inflict their prejudice on her.
Over the past twenty-four years as Australian citizens, my family has watched the slow erosion of my mother’s public identity, and the increasing hostility she experiences from strangers. We had eight years of an uncompromised identity in Australia as Muslims, before 9/11 put an end to that era entirely, and heralded the beginning of over a decade of Islamophobia.
Like most Australians, I can remember where I was when I heard about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001. At home, eating my breakfast before going to school. The footage was ghastly, repeating on every channel, again and again – the plane smashing into the side of the tower, the explosion of dust and fire and death from the impact.
That night, my parents sat us down and explained briefly that people thought the attack was orchestrated by Muslims in the Middle East. They told us that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that we had to remember that our God did not condone this type of pointless violence. They also told us to not talk to people about the event, and to avoid telling people that we were Muslim. Mum would be taking a break from wearing the hijab in public.
They already knew, without any evidence at that point, that the responses to this would be ugly for us. I don’t know where their foresight came from (possibly the more casual racism they had endured to date in Australia suggested that Muslims weren’t likely to get off lightly when something this big happened), but I remember feeling very conscious of my skin and cultural difference from that moment on.
Islamophobia is a curious phenomenon, not least for its name. ‘Phobia’ implies a fear that is unavoidable, instinctive. A person who has arachnophobia can not choose their negative reaction to spiders – it is inherent to them, a fear that is physical. ‘Islamophobia’ is both instinctive in this way, and tied to an ideology – a response based on fear but that is equally spurred by anger.
The anger that many in the West feel towards Muslims is not built just on terrorism. It’s also founded on sheer fury at the audacity of people from non-white, second-world countries daring to go to the US and to kill American people on US territory. Terror attacks in other Western countries have further cemented this fury.
The 2005 Cronulla Riots were an expression of this fury. Australians had a ‘right to safety’, the ‘messaging’ of the riots said. That is, a right to an expectation of safety that is not shared by non-white Australians, or people in non-white-majority countries. And especially not by those who are Muslim.
Importantly, the guarantee of safety afforded to citizens of first-world countries is understood as another example of first-world superiority. Public safety is a result of capitalist democracy; a function of the West, that can’t exist in countries that don’t conform to the blueprint of western civilisation.
The ‘othering’ of Muslims has only increased in the over-ten years since Cronulla. A report released by The Conversation in July 2017 examined 243 cases of Islamophobic harrassment and found that 98 per cent of perpetrators were described as ‘anglo-celtic’. But the recorded attacks are probably only the tip of the iceberg. The continued harassment faced by Muslims in Australia is not confined to open verbal and physical attacks, and the micro-aggressions are equally disturbing.
When I am with my mother in public, I notice micro-aggression in almost every interaction we have. Wearing the hijab means that Mum is the only member of my family that is obviously Muslim. We are Fijian-Indian, and have a non-Muslim surname, so we can otherwise pass for Hindu or Christian. The unfortunate reality for many Muslim women is that the expression of their faith through the hijab or burka makes them visible targets for hate.
It’s a reinforcing of the patriarchal society we live in, regardless of culture or religion. Women have both the least power in global conflict, and are the most likely to be personally affected by it. Cashiers will speak to Mum loudly and slowly, barely concealing their irritation – as if she can’t speak English fluently, before she even has a chance to open her mouth. Smiles drop from the faces of waiters in restaurants, and other customers in the supermarket will glance twice at Mum, sometimes going so far as to mutter racist things as they pass.
One woman went out of her way to tell Mum how people line up ‘in this country’, when Mum shuffled forwards in her queue in the pharmacy one day, assuming Mum was going to push in front of the next person. A man followed her through the supermarket, keeping up a hissed litany of abuse about her being a ‘fucking Muslim’, forcing Mum to eventually confront him. She told him she was just trying to do her shopping.
When I was eleven Mum and I were walking through Garema Place in Canberra – an outdoor pedestrian mall area in the centre of the city, an area that has long been a home for the down-and-out. A man reeled through the path ahead of us and we did a wide loop to avoid him. As we took him over though, he glanced up, saw Mum’s hijab, and slurred something to the effect of ‘Fuck you, you mussie cunt’, spitting in our general direction.
Mum gripped her handbag tighter and we closed ranks a little, and hurried towards the shopping centre.
In this interaction I was caught between rage and denial. Perhaps I heard him wrong: perhaps he said ‘Fuck you, you messed up cunt’. It might have been just run-of-the-mill yelling, not directed at us. Maybe it wasn’t racist. Maybe we hadn’t been noticed.
This is the gaslighting that racism creates. A sense of uncertainty in our experiences and our interpretations of them that all people of colour have to live with, and that is heightened for today’s Muslim diasporas. It’s a reaction of disbelief both in the use of such violence and hate by others, but also in our own victimisation, in our subject position as being affected by such prejudice.
Usually, when someone yells something racist in the street, there is a clear sense of truth in that experience – the act is encapsulated in transparent terms. There was anger, there were words spoken, the words contained the hatred and prejudice that created the response of fear and discomfort in the person they were hurled at. That is an act of racism. It is clear and difficult to dispute, as much as we might prefer to avoid looking it in the eye.
But the micro-aggressions and the subtle insidious racism they contain are harder to pin down. The sensation of never quite knowing if your experience of an interaction is as it was intended, whether you are truly a victim, or just ‘being too sensitive’, is enough to drive you mad.
Ironically, if the goal of anti-Muslim attacks is to eventually scare Australian Muslims away from the country, or away from their faith, then this approach is more likely to have the opposite effect.
Islamophobia does nothing to establish a stronger sense of a shared Australian identity or even to fragment Muslim identity – if anything, by essentialising all Muslims under the incorrect banner of ‘terrorist’, the Muslim identity is further cemented, and the connection that Australian Muslims have to their country is gradually alienated. This is ironic given the fact that religion, up until now, has not been seen as an ‘identity’ category – in my experience growing up as a Muslim in Australia, our communities were only barely united by faith.
Growing up within the Canberran Muslim community, for example, there were multiple smaller sub-groups defined by ethnicity. The Arab Muslims, the Indian Muslims, the Malaysian Muslims, etc. We all came together at the mosque, but we also practiced our faith differently according to the cultures we were from.
Now, though, the Muslim community has been brought ever closer together under the attack of the racist Islamophobic right (and to a lesser degree, the condescending, faint-hearted attempts of the left) – in trying to divide them from the rest of Australian society. Instead they have pushed Muslims into the same corner and connected them further.
Tasnim is a young Muslim Australian woman, living in Sydney. She describes the way she can feel the cultural temperature change in different parts of the city when she is in public wearing her hijab: ‘The further east I go, the more I feel like I stand out.’
Tasnim’s parents, unlike mine, didn’t want their children to shy away from difficult conversations in the aftermath of 9/11.
‘I think my parents did speak to us, but they were always like, do tell them what your background is … For them, and for us, Islam is a religion of peace,’ Tasnim says.
‘My mum, when we were kids, she would always go into our classrooms and she’d do a half-hour presentation on Islam, and sometimes about Bangladeshi culture. She’d have a quiz and chocolates at the end for the kids.’
But even with this proactive approach from her parents, Tasnim was aware that being culturally different was a double-edged sword. One day your peers might yell out the names of prophets to win a Milky Way, and the next day you might be called a terrorist in the playground.
‘I remember feeling like I needed to learn how this stuff all worked and how I felt about it, and kind of arming myself with knowledge very, very young,’ she says. ‘I remember very soon after [9/11] feeling like I had to be a ten-year-old political scientist and theologian, like really quite soon after that.’
The trouble with trying to arm ourselves with knowledge against Islamophobia, however, is that it relies on the assumption that prejudice against Muslims is based on a rational fear. In fact, it’s a fear that is entirely irrational and that has existed in multicultural communities in many different forms, with many different scapegoats, for many years.
For young women like Tasnim and I, our other option is to ‘assimilate’. I asked Tasnim if she felt hyper-aware that with her hijab, she stands out as visibly Muslim in public places.
‘Yeah, absolutely. There are two places where this happens. I have friends who laugh about this quite a lot. They’re like, “Tas, you’re doing it again.” “What am I doing?” “You’re doing your country-town voice.” So, whenever I end up in regional Australia my voice gets quite high, and my accent gets a lot stronger and there’s an uptick and I grin like a sociopath.’
As she talks, Tasnim demonstrates the accent, and I listen to her voice transform from a suburban Canberran tone to an over-the-top, ‘occa accent. I grin but I know exactly what she means. I often feel the need to talk loudly in an Australian accent when I notice someone glancing at our family in distaste, or see a subtle eye-roll from a waiter.
To me, more than my citizenship certificate, my accent is the ultimate proof that I belong here. You don’t sound like Tasnim and I without having spent essentially your whole life in Australia, eating lamingtons at recess and doing cannon balls in the local pool each summer.
Our parents might be tertiary-educated with perfect English and professional jobs, but their slight accents will be their burden to carry forever in Australia. Every year, their connection to the country of their birth becomes frailer, more tenuous. When racists tell me to ‘go back to where I came from’, I can easily say, ‘I came from here.’
But for my parents, they are trapped between pining for their home country on the one hand, and loving their lives as Australians on the other. They are home. You can have more than one home. There is no requirement for a migrant to be somehow 110 per cent patriotic to their adopted country. If that patriotism is to exist, inclusion has to be established first.
It pains me to see our lives in the country that we love, that has been our home and that we have contributed to for years, become constrained and limited by prejudice.
It frustrates me to see the term ‘Muslim’ become synonymous with a sort of social exile, an assumption of transgression, that all Muslims are meant to atone for on behalf of those that use the religion as an excuse for their violence.
Every hijab or burka is a light piece of fabric adorning a woman who has a personality, a history, a set of experiences. She is unlikely to fit within the narrow stereotype that society has constructed for Muslim women. She should not be a scapegoat for a war started by someone else, in the name of her religion – her religion that doesn’t condone such violence.