“Please don’t leave the house today. Not unless you really have to.” My dad is calling me from work to remind me to stay safe. He’s made the same call for the past two days after a gunman opened fire on two New Zealand mosques during Friday prayers. On that awful day in March, I sat at home in my student house in Nottingham, fighting back tears and watching on social media as the death toll steadily rose.
It might sound like my dad is a bit overprotective – I’m 23, after all – but he knows that in the wake of such an awful attack, with tensions and fears running high, that I, a young Muslim wearing a hijab, could easily face abuse or worse. He made the same call to me in summer 2017, after the Finsbury Park mosque attack which killed one person and injured nine others. And again after two other terror attacks which happened that summer on Westminster and London Bridges. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to matter if Muslims are the victims or the perpetrators of an attack - we can still feel like easy targets.
This was the case after the New Zealand attack. The week following the Christchurch shooting, Tell Mama, a group which records anti-Muslim attacks, received more than double the number of hate crime reports than it would in an average average week, according to figures supplied to the Guardian. The same thing happened in the wake of the Westminster and London Bridge attacks in 2017. And in Greater Manchester, that same year, after the terror attack which specifically targeted women and children at an Ariana Grande concert - reports of anti-Muslim hate crime rose again by more than 500%, according to official police figures, which include online hate crime.
I’d be lying if I said that hearing those statistics didn’t make me feel afraid but these days I refuse to hide away. For me, being Muslim is less about a cultural identity and more about being fearless in the face of hatred. So, this time I told Dad some white lies and carried on my life as normal: attending classes, being involved in student politics (I'm the BME officer of my Student Union) and going for coffee with friends.
In the days following the attack, I organised a vigil for 60 people in Nottingham. I wanted to give Muslims a space where we could connect with the guilt we all felt as survivors, grieve for those who died, and deal with the suppressed fear inside us that it might be our mosque next. It might be our family. And we are powerless to stop it.
Dealing with fear is nothing new for me. I grew up in east London - in an area which is predominantly working class, Asian and Muslim. Even though there were plenty of mosques and halal food in local supermarkets, I still spent my childhood and teenage years living in the shadow of anti-Muslim violence.
I had just started primary school when the 9/11 terror attack happened. I was only five but I recall being called names in the playground and suddenly not feeling safe. Four years later, the 7/7 attack happened this time in London, my home town. I remember feeling so shocked and scared that something like this could happen so close to home. After that, everything changed.
Bullies at school started calling me "Bin Laden" or "terrorist" and they didn’t limit their attacks to just verbal abuse. Sometimes I was left to go home to my parents with my physical injuries clearly visible. On a few occasions, the attacks got really bad and I ended up in hospital. I kept thinking that if I ignored the taunts, they would go away but that didn’t happen.
The impact has stayed with me - to this day, if I experience abuse, my initial reaction is “What did I do to deserve this? What have I done? I must be at fault.”
By the time I reached secondary school, aged 11, I’d developed an eating disorder. I still struggle with depression and other mental health issues today. The bullying made going to school a nightmare. I struggled to make friends and kept quiet in classes. I was too scared to offer an opinion on anything.
Back then, all I wanted was to be seen as "British" and to be treated like all the other non-Muslim kids in my class. But I was denied that. I was told time and time again that I “wasn’t British”, that I was a “terrorist" and worse. That, somehow, I was to blame for the actions of murderous extremists who claimed to share my religion.
Going away to uni in Nottingham was a huge culture shock for me, having grown up in a predominantly Asian community in east London. I’m often the only Muslim and/or the only Asian in class. At home, the sight of a Muslim wearing a hijab is much more common. At uni, I’ve met people from rural areas who have only ever seen hijab-wearers on the TV or in the newspapers.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that yes, I wear the hijab out of choice. And no, I’m not oppressed. I’ve been lucky enough not to be attacked on campus for wearing it, but I do know girls who’ve had theirs pulled off.
When I first started at uni, I wanted to begin a new chapter in my life away from the bullies and taunts. And to feel free of the fear of being different. So for a few years, I wore my hijab more like a turban, to make it less obvious and to look more like a fashion accessory.
At first I was worried I might not cope so far from home and that the same feelings of not being safe or belonging would resurface. Thankfully, I’ve developed a strong support and friendship network now. I also spent six months studying abroad in Malaysia, an experience I might have been terrified of when I was younger.
Today, I feel more confident in myself and have found my voice through student politics. I still struggle with my mental health and the scars of the trauma I experienced at such a young age will never leave me.
I have recently returned to wearing my hijab the traditional way, like I did when I was at school. For me, it’s reclaiming a symbol of my identity as a Muslim and these days I wear it with pride. Even in the face of hate.
As told to Salma Haidrani.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article help and support is available here.