Hannah Yusuf recently penned a poignant piece for the Independent Voices and we had the opportunity to interview her for TELL MAMA. We are grateful for her responses and for the time that she took in responding to our request.
Your article effectively touched on the everyday Islamophobia. Has the incident made your more cautious when flying?
Before the incident I was genuinely convinced that security officials at airports are professionals who think and act objectively. I now doubt this ideal. I am more cautious of the fact that, even in a professional environment, there are individuals who seek to criminalise an entire group of people based on the actions of a minority.
Has it made you think about any other incident of everyday Islamophobia you may have experienced?
There have been a number of instances in which members of the general public behaved in a hateful manner towards me for no reason. But since those incidents didn’t happen in a professional environment, I never saw them as Islamophobic attacks. I often dismissed the individuals as either unfriendly people who are unkind to everyone or as people who had a problem with me for a reason other than my faith.
The Heathrow experience reminded me of one particular incident of very obvious Islamophobia in Switzerland. A middle-aged man sitting opposite me on the tram turned to a young girl next to him and said, in a matter-of-fact way: “she is one of the people who bomb buildings”. Even though this was hurtful, the incident didn’t affect me since it was merely the opinion of someone who isn’t in a position of power.
You end your article nicely about tolerance and the need to recognise Islamophobia in the day-to-day. How important was it for you to speak out and write about this incident?
It is necessary that security officials be given an insight to how damaging it can be alienate youngsters in their own home. I fully understand that this is a case of one intolerant individual, but I can see how someone else may perceive such an individual to be a representation of an entire system.
I found writing to be an outlet for the frustration I felt towards that particular officer. Security services must realise that someone who is subjected to unnecessary humiliation will seek to find a way to deal with the pain. And unfortunately, not everyone does that through writing.
I am by no means suggesting that security services become less thorough in their checks. However, it is important that they remember they’re dealing with human beings who have real feelings. If someone were stopped, it may be better if officers didn’t subject the person to humiliating treatment. Once security officers realise they’ve made a mistake, perhaps an apology or a simple “thank you for your time” might be appropriate.
The article had a lot of online success. What was some of the feedback like? Did people share similar stories or sentiments with you?
There was a divide in the response to the article. A number of commentators criticised me for “complaining” and accused me of being “too sensitive”, which, ironically, proves my point. Unjust treatment towards Muslims has become so common that something must be seriously wrong with anyone who speaks out against it. It baffles me that people are surprised to see that young people are sensitive. We, as young people, are on a continuous search for identity and meaning, and our daily experiences play a big role in finding this.
A few men have told me that I “deserve” it for wearing the hijab, which I found shocking. There’s a big problem when grown men think it’s acceptable to use a woman’s clothing to justify mistreatment. It seems that we live in a time when moral lines are blurred, depending on who is at the receiving end.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had a number of supportive comments. Many young Muslims have reached out to me about similar incidents at airports. Young girls who wear the hijab have spoken to me about feeling like easy targets for Islamophobia. The girls were glad to see a woman with a hijab challenging this issue. The one thing that almost everyone who spoke to me had in common was that they thought this type of unfair treatment was “normal for a Muslim”.
What would your message to be other young Muslims who might not speak out?
The only way we can stop everyday Islamophobia is by speaking out against it. There will be a lot of criticism but remember that there has never been a person standing up against intolerance who wasn’t criticised. Speak to your teachers, counsellors, university lecturers and advisers, or get in touch with organisations like Tell MAMA, who I’m sure will be very happy to guide you.
It’s important that we realise our responsibility to change the negative perception of Muslims. Most people’s knowledge of Islam is based on what is portrayed in the media. We often complain about the media’s misrepresentation of Islam, but we can’t expect mainstream media to ignore the minority of loud voices among a majority of quiet Muslims. Passive condemnation is simply not good enough. We must be active in taking control of our own narrative and reclaim our Muslim identity. If you allow someone else to speak for you then, frankly, you can’t really complain when that someone distorts your story.
We should also encourage dialogue with other faiths. By doing so we can understand the perspective of others, while diminishing negative stereotypes of Muslims. Many interfaith organisations, such as the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, organise seminars to tackle issues surrounding Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Different faith groups will achieve much more by talking to each other, instead of talking about the other.
I hope my article will remind people that Muslim voices are valued in Britain. All we need to do is be active. The fact that I, a Muslim woman, have been given a platform in a national paper speaks volumes about the opportunities open to us.