There’s a game I sometimes like to play when people ask me where I’m from. I’ll challenge them to guess, and shake my head at all their wrong answers. Egypt? Brazil? Israel? Spain? Lebanon? Mexico? Barbados? No, no and no. So far, no one has ever got it right, and I’ve been playing this game for over a decade now. I really should start bringing money into the equation.
I don’t look like enough of any one thing to be easily placed. I don’t look like enough of an ethnic minority. Dressing the way I do and acting the way I do automatically excludes me from almost every narrative of muslim women that the mainstream media uses. You won’t find me with a national flag wrapped around my head like a hijab when out protesting. Even though I still lose sleep over the same issues that affect immigrant women everywhere, I don’t make a powerful front-page photograph.
I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve, by which, of course, I do not mean to criticise those who choose to express their religion in a more obvious way. I see and feel all the fallout from the rising tide of anti-muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, but those dialogues rarely see me because I choose not to make myself seen.
When the current US President signed his executive order banning entry t the US from seven predominantly muslim countries, it hurt me in a way I didn’t think it would. I am not a hijab wearing woman being constantly targeted because of her religion. I am not from one of the seven banned countries. I’m not even American. Why did I find it so distressing?
Because the mere fact that one person in power could reduce whole populations to just one aspect of who they are upset me to the point that I lost sleep over it. I’m a woman – I know what it feels like to be stripped of every aspect of who you are until you’re regarded as just one thing. All women know this feeling. It’s our deeply unpleasant initiation into womanhood, often before we’re even the age where we’d be considered women. I didn’t need to be American, or a hijab wearing muslim woman to appreciate some of the deep pain that this executive order caused. It’s easy to feel the hatred of anti-muslim sentiments when it manifests in actions like these, and it’s easy to start taking it personally.
“But you don’t look muslim” is something I hear all the time, as if there is only one particular way of being anything. The hijab has become such an iconic image and such a flashpoint for debate that the narrative around it has unknowingly managed to exclude every other type of muslim woman. It’s become shorthand for a group that’s pitied and reviled in equal measure.
Since I live in Greece, my frame of reference for my experience as an immigrant and muslim woman is going to be Greek society, but practically all of what I have experienced could apply to any country in Europe right now.
As a rough estimate, I’d say over half of the people I interact with who don’t know I’m a foreigner or muslim will have an anti-immigrant or anti-muslim statement to make. It normally starts quite innocently – I’ll be sat in the back of a taxi, quietly trying to gauge the nature of the taxi driver. Do I see religious icons adorning the dashboard? What radio station is he listening to? This being Greece, even on the shortest drive we’ll usually pass a church. If the driver doesn’t cross himself three times, Orthodox fashion, it usually means I don’t have to brace myself for prying questions about my faith, or lack thereof.
If the driver crosses himself, I get ready for what is most likely to follow. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity – Greeks are in general very friendly, talkative and curious by nature. Usually we’ll have a nice, interactive chat about our parts of the world, their differences, problems and the things they have in common. Other times, it’s either a lecture on all the damage that Islam has caused the world, or questions about why groups like ISIS do what they do in the name of Islam. If I knew the answer to that, I would have shipped out my knowledge to the highest bidder years ago. It’s like thinking that listening to a couple of U2 songs when I was a teenager is supposed to make me have an answer as to why Bono has turned out the way he has.
Sometimes revealing my religion and status as an immigrant makes the other person demand answers from me. Why is there so much crime where immigrants go (not the good type of immigrants, the expats from the north, the bad type with dark skin)? Why do Pakistanis attack foreign women? Why don’t they respect women? And why don’t your women respect themselves? Why the hijab? But this is your religion and your culture, surely you must have an answer to all these aspects which are not in your control? It’s startling the ease with which people make such sweeping statements about peoples and cultures, when in most cases I’m sure I’m the first muslim or the demonised type of immigrant they actually had a face to face conversation with.
We’re living in a Europe where people have latched on to quick fixes and easy answers, and a Europe which is decisively swinging to the right. Brexit and the fact that Golden Dawn still remain Greece’s third most popular party are some examples of that. I’ve been in conversations with people who make casually racist statements about Pakistanis without realising my origins, then look taken aback and say “But you don’t look Pakistani.” I don’t know whether it’s the light or something else, because I sure looked Pakistani enough in the UK to have racist slurs yelled at me in the street a few times.
In some ways my invisibility gives me a truer picture of what people are thinking right now – in the absence of a hijab, no one self-censors around me. If they don’t know me at all, the speak even more freely, sometimes looking at me for back up. “Am I right?” the barista might say after his little speech about how immigrants are ruining the country, even though you didn’t order your morning coffee with an extra shot of racist rhetoric. And I’ll sigh and feel myself deflate a little, because I know that once again I have to defend my position. I’ll admit there are times when it’s just too much trouble to do, and I’ll try to get them to drop the subject by saying “It’s a free country, you’re allowed to believe whatever you like.”
The last time this happened, I was at a pharmacy in Kavala in the firing line of a chain-smoking pharmacist, who, as she took her time to ring up the medication I was buying, began to ask the usual questions. Where was I from? Athens, I replied. No, where are you originally from, she asked.
So I told her. She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “Muslims are terrible people. They are the worst people in the world. Everywhere they go, they cause trouble. You are lucky you married a Greek and escaped all that.”
This line of how lucky I am to have escaped whatever horrible life I would be living otherwise (commuting on the Tube and paying London rents under grey British skies, I assume, which okay, it does sound nightmarish) by marrying a Greek is one I’ve heard a couple of times now. I always correct the person with what a loving and progressive family I grew up with. I was brought up with my own set of wings, I didn’t need a man to come along and help me fly out of a cage I was never locked in in the first place. That’s often rejected if it doesn’t fit into the other person’s narrative.
I argued. She kept smoking, and kept going back to the same line of how terrible all muslims are. “If you walked around like you are now, with your head uncovered, don’t tell me they wouldn’t kill you in your home country.”
I looked at my jeans, trainers and baggy sweater dress. “They wouldn’t” I replied. “They would,” she insisted. She once more fell back to her line of how terrible muslims were. My words made no difference, so I threw my “it’s a free country” line at her, paid and left. I would go home to tell the story of the racist, chain-smoking pharmacist in Kavala, and she would probably go home to tell the story of the muslim woman who didn’t even know how oppressed she was.
My invisibility is most definitely a privilege, too. I don’t have the dramatic immigrant story to tell. I cross borders without problems thanks to that coveted dark red passport (soon to change back to black, I’m sure). I can sit within earshot of a xenophobic conversation and know that it’s not likely I’ll be dragged into it.
The flipside is that my invisibility is a problem for the other side of the argument too. I’m not muslim enough, so how could I understand the dilemma of the hijab-wearing muslim woman? I vanish on the streets, so how could I know what it feels like to be the Pakistani woman in traditional clothes being yelled at by the native shopkeeper for touching the vegetables on display? I’m not eastern enough for the east or the west, which leaves me in a kind of limbo.
I can do a disappearing act if I want to by just blending in, or declare my origins with how I dress, although this was something I stopped doing after Golden Dawn’s 2012 victory in Greece. Emboldened, people became openly racist, and I escaped into neutrality by just not wearing traditional clothes outside the house. I went back to wearing whatever I wanted two years ago, because allowing fascists to censor part of who I am is not a lesson I want to pass to my children, and there’s nothing better than Gul Ahmad lawn in a Greek summer.
So I’m left with quite an attractive option, which is to embrace the fluidity I possess, all the while being aware that I will not be able to stop defending aspects of who I am to people who insist on sticking me inside a narrative which suits them, and that includes the one of the successfully integrated immigrant, rather than just me being me. Nothing in this life comes for free.