As a visible Bengali Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab, yes, I have been discriminated against verbally and physically, based on my physical appearance. Growing up, as a young child, prior to me wearing the hijab, I was told by adults in my area that my brown skin was ‘dirty’, my South Asian hair was ‘greasy and oily’ and that I need to take a bath to clean the dirt off my skin. The list goes on. Now as a young adult who wears the hijab, yes, I do feel a slight sense of unease every time I go through airport security because of the way I am always patted down excessively, my hijab ruffled up and the way my passport is thoroughly checked at the boarding gate and placed through different scanning systems. My best friends who are predominantly Caucasian, East Asian and black, and not Muslim, just stand there not knowing what to do, because well, it is a ‘routine check’. That’s what I have been told. Yes, I am worried about how I am going to be perceived based on my skin colour, my hijab, everything that constitutes my physical appearance, because people have made derogatory comments to me before in the past, since I was 4 years old. And in the last five years, I’ve been spat on whilst walking home, I’ve been slapped across the face at a tube station, I’ve been called a ‘paki’ and told to go back to my country, a woman screamed at me whilst calling me an ‘Indian terrorist’ and told me that I am directly responsible for 9/11. And in the first few months of sixth form, a boy thought it was funny to throw bacon at me continuously during lunch whilst I was eating. The list goes on. I am not going to bore you. There is a blurred line between race and religion whereby Islam and Muslims have become racialised in the recent contemporary i.e. physical attacks carried out on Muslims have been done so based on ‘how Muslim a person looks’. Look at the prominent case of Balbir Singh Sodhi, just one of many since 2001. Nonetheless, even if I was to remove my hijab supposedly, I can’t remove my skin colour physically, nor do I want to. I am visibly brown, and I am visibly Muslim. And the fine line between race and religion has become significantly blurred in the 21st century. Inevitably, society has, does and is going to treat me a certain way due to these intersections that
constitute my identity.
Though I’ve had and will have my experiences of being discriminated against based on my physical appearance, nonetheless there is no denying that I am privileged in other ways. I feel that sometimes, people can see privilege in a very black and white way, literally. In fact, people forget how privileged they are, and that privilege itself does lie on a spectrum.
I’m privileged. I live in inner West London. I went to school. I went to a good sixth form. I went to a Russell group university. Every single day my dad would pick me up from school. When I used to come home, which was a 3-minute walk from my primary school, I would have a shower, I would then have my dinner which was waiting for me at the table. When I wasn’t doing my homework or extracurricular activities, I was at the library or I was playing out with my friends who lived in my area. I went to school. I was in full time education for 18 years. As a young primary school student, I had parents picking me up from school, holding my hand up until we reached our home. School was a 3-minute walk. One time my friend and I ran from school to home, it took us 1 minute. Not every child in this world has the privilege of going to school, let alone a school that is so nearby. One of my great Aunts would always tell me that she had to climb mountains and swim through lakes and rivers to go to school. I’m pretty sure she was exaggerating slightly, but she would always tell me that she used to go to school every single day, and as she set off, the poorer children her age in the village would set out to do their domestic and agricultural duties. On top of having a good education, not every child is privileged to have a parent or parents, let alone parents picking them up from school. My father passed away when I was 15 years old, at a young, crucial and pivotal moment of my life, but nonetheless, I had a strong father figure growing up who was there for me. On top of that, I had, and I do have access to clean water every single day. I never have to worry about trekking for miles looking for water, let alone water that is sanitised. I never have to trek anywhere. As a child, I was able to play out with the other children in my area without my parents having to worry extensively about my health and safety. The area in which I grew up in was a relatively safe area with a decent neighbourhood, well during daylight hours anyways. And though there were gangs in my area, incidents of knife crime, people being shot, drug dealings, arson attacks, like a lot of London in fact, which goes unheard of in the great British media, even the affluent boroughs, nonetheless it was London, West London, a city of opportunities within an economically developed country.
My mum was born in 1958 in Bangladesh, a decade after the Indian partition. Prior to 1947, Bangladesh was controlled by the British Raj. From 1947 to 1971, Pakistan intervened socially and politically in Bangladesh, trying to gain control over this small territory. After many years of conflict and turmoil Bangladesh finally gained independence and formally became a country in 1971. My mum is literate. She knows how to read and write in both Bengali and English. Growing up, she had the privilege of going to school despite her school being bombed and closed for a couple of years due to the war. My grandfather who went to Pakistan to study at university ensured that his daughters were educated and aware, so frequently he would sit with my mum and listen to her read, the same way my dad would sit with me and listen to me read my library books to him. As a child, I was never surprised that my mum knew how to read and write in Bengali, it was her mother tongue after all. And I was never surprised that she knew the history of her country so well, all the way from the British empire to the Portuguese settlers, to the Moghul, Turk and Afghan rulers, and the first Arab Muslim to set foot in her village. But, my mum would frequently tell me that she was privileged to come from an industrialised area in Bangladesh, and privileged to have a father who stressed the importance of his daughters to be educated. I never knew up until recently in fact that the adult literacy rate of Bangladesh was 29.2 % in 1981 and in 2015, 61.5 %. According to UNESCO, the average adult literacy rate in 2018 is 72.76%. I was so surprised to see these figures because 1. My mum was born in the late 1950’s, when the literacy rate was probably lower than 29.2%, and 2. It really made me put things into perspective. Unlike my mum who lived through the Bangladeshi liberation war, who saw her father, friends and other family members kidnapped, harmed and tortured right before her very eyes, who did have her house raided by the Pakistani military frequently and all their belongings stolen, and livestock burnt up, I have it good. But I realised that although my mum went through a lot growing up: being born after the Indian Partition, the dismantling of the British Empire and living through the Bangladeshi liberation war etc, she like me, saw herself as privileged primarily because she was literate and educated in comparison to other girls her age growing up who weren’t.
We are all privileged in our own right.