There is a young school student who often catches my bus. She is always smiling, joking with her friends, listening to hip-hop, and is just a general bundle of joy. She also happens to observe the hijab (wears a headscarf covering the hair for religious purposes usually). 10 days after the Christchurch Mosque Attack, we were on the same bus again, and her show of faith was no longer displayed proudly on her head. Perhaps there are other factors in her life that led to her decision, but the timing for me is almost too convenient.
I was born and raised in Auckland and in my privilege, considered it the best place in the world to grow up. It was safe, the people were friendly, and I had lots of opportunities at my fingertips. I had to fight harder for them, but I knew they were there along with the respect of my community.
I also grow up in the shadow of 9/11. While I have never worn the hijab, I am a practicing Muslim and was very much aware that people around me were afraid of people like me. And I, being a vulnerable and confused teenager struggling to find my place in the world, became very calculated in which parts of myself I revealed to the world. Being in a wheelchair I was already different; the extra level of difference and separation for this puberty-stricken, awkward, smelly, hairy Indian teenager was just too much to handle. They knew I was Muslim, but I don’t remember ever talking about what that even means. Instead, I heard comments about women who wear hijabs or niqabs, and how they shouldn’t be allowed to wear that here (because feminism doesn’t include a women’s right to cover yourself, right?), and I shamefully kept quiet.
When I saw this young woman on the bus, I felt deeply sad. I previously hid my identity in order to avoid negative stereotyping and making others uncomfortable; she hid hers in order to protect her safety.
As a Kiwi-Muslim it has been so incredibly moving seeing the flood of aroha (love), compassion and solidarity over this deeply dark time. However, we must remember that once the nationally organized acts of solidarity are all wrapped up, many young Muslims will still feel vulnerable and nervous. They are still concerned for their safety and reflecting on their place in Aotearoa.
The 50 martyrs, in the Christchurch terrorist shootings, were victim to the level of Islamophobia that the average New Zealander can’t even imagine. It was the type of hate fueled by war-mongering governments and media channels that only ever chose to show one particular side of us (as Muslims). One of the many reasons I believe the world is so surprised at the Muslim response to this terrorist act – the patience, compassion and forgiveness – is because they’re only used to seeing us in a negative light. We too feel grief and value security; that’s why we chose Aotearoa.
Unless we intentionally start to shift the narrative we tell about ourselves and our diverse communities, we will continue to have young people grow up in fear of the other, and the fear of judgement. We are at that point where we will heal together by putting this sentiment at the core of this grieving process. We were late to this realization, but I do pray that if we continue to learn about one another, we will never again repeat these same mistakes.