As part of our campaign to #BREAKFREE from racism, writer Layla Haidrani shares her experiences of islamophobia in the UK
The first time it happened, I was at a friend’s housewarming and a pork sausage was dumped on my plate. While all my friends devoured it, I tried not to make it too obvious as I toyed with it. There were many non-descript moments like this, but this was the first time I consciously realised I was feeling forced to conceal my identity.
Sometimes it’s easier to accept that – to pretend you’re something other than you really are – than going through the whole rigmarole. ‘Are you vegetarian?’ I’d shake my head and smile. ‘So you eat meat but you don’t eat bacon?’ I’d nod, feeling tense and knowing what was coming next. ‘Oh, are you Muslim?’
Growing up Muslim in a post-9/11 world isn’t easy, as any Muslim millennial female would attest. No longer just tarred across the headlines of a grubby tabloid, Islamophobia is alive and well in Britain today. And it’s not just the rise in distrust, suspicion and hostility – in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, anti-Muslim hate crimes tripled, and rose by 50% in the last year alone.
But it’s not just the ‘big’ things – it’s the everyday mundane things that don’t quite hit the headlines. Ticking ‘prefer not to say’ when it comes to the dreaded ‘what religion are you?’ section, be it an application form or even a 30 second survey – in case this will affect how my responses are judged.
Or the fear that if I don’t retweet a post condemning terrorist attacks, then somehow my silence might be interpreted as agreement.
It’s the frustration of someone refusing to sit in the same carriage as you and your dad because his dark brown skin automatically suggests he might have something suspicious in his bag.
And it’s the eye-roll I make when people double-blink at a burqa-clad woman in Topshop, because God forbid that Muslim girls also want lacy knickers and 90s choker necklaces like everyone else. And yes, it’s even not refusing bacon.
It can be exhausting.
Clearly, I’m not the only one to feel like this if the #notinmyname movement is anything to go by. In September 2015, Muslims took to Twitter in their droves to reclaim their religion in the face of heightened anti-Muslim bigotry.
Granted, I know I have it luckier than most. I don’t look ‘typically’ Muslim – or whatever a ‘typical’ Muslim supposedly looks like – in that I don’t wear the hijab or the burqa. It’s not actually something I would consider anyway, but even if I wanted to, it would make me hesitate in the current climate where your visibility seems to make you more prone to attacks. A morning commute trapped under sweaty armpits is bad enough – let alone factoring in the fear of being thrown onto tube tracks or getting physically assaulted just because you’re wearing a headscarf.
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Worse still, there’s the guilt too of the ‘relief’ that comes from not visibly looking like one.
The Britain that I know has changed, but despite the gender-targeted violence and simmering tensions, that’s not to say there’s not a glimmer of hope. From GBBO unlikely favourite Nadiya Hussain’s victory to Dolce & Gabanna’s Muslim-friendly collections, these breakthroughs have had a powerful impact in stemming prejudice that no amount of racial slurs can remove.
So next time? Instead of pausing over my plate of food, I’ll #breakfree and say hold that bacon sausage, thanks. Because I will no longer allow myself to live in fear of being pigeonholed or persecuted simply for subscribing to a (not actually very) different belief system.
Follow Layla on Twitter at: @layla_haidrani