I’ve always been aware of the injustices British Muslims face, but I’ve sometimes doubted the narrative of the “Muslim victim”.
Why is it such a big deal if you’re singled-out every now and then because of your appearance? If you have nothing to hide, there should be no problem – just cooperate, surely? Security officers would never apply a blanket stop and search; they only stop potential criminals with good reason, right?
Wrong. Just over a month ago, I was about to arrive at border control at London Heathrow, having flown in from Dubai. Suddenly, I was pulled aside and told to hand over my passport. I smiled at the officer as she scrutinised what I was wearing from my headscarf to my sandals. She didn’t smile back.
I gave her my passport, naïvely expecting a normal conversation about what I had been up to during my travels. Instead I was greeted with a look that I can only describe as being full of contempt.
She began by asking general questions such as “why are you alone?”. I happily answered as fully as I could. She then began to unpick anything that I said with suspicion. She found it difficult to believe that I had paid for my own ticket and I had to explain how a mere Muslim girl could afford a trip to the Middle East.
She made me feel intimidated by directing me closer to the wall – perhaps to stop the possibility of me getting away – by which time I began to cry. Ignoring my tears, she continued to make me feel like a criminal, without knowing anything about me. It took a long time before she seemed to accept that it’s possible for an unmarried young Muslim woman to travel alone without the lure of a male jihadist.
I was so wounded by this incident. I had no problem with being questioned by airport security, but what troubled me was the way the situation was handled. To label someone as guilty until innocent is problematic, but what made the situation worse is that even once she established that I wasn’t an extremist, I was still treated with doubt.
This may seem minor, especially if you compare it to other instances of discrimination in the UK. But these small, everyday moments have a cumulative effect, and increasingly undermine the relationship between British Muslims and their home country.
I’m completely aware that our authorities have to take certain measures to protect us. But it’s crucial that we draw a line between national security and what can be considered to be the marginalisation of an already marginalised group.
After the incident with the security officer, I made my way to border control. I was referred to a manager, mainly because I could not stop crying. He was kind and very apologetic, but he justified it as a necessary part of the airport’s security measures. He assumed that the reason I was stopped was because I am a “young Muslim girl”, and therefore a potential “jihadi bride”.
Indeed, I am young and I was wearing a headscarf. However, if we were to substitute the word “Muslim” for another minority group, would that be ok? Would anyone ever say: “You were stopped because you’re a young Jewish girl, so we couldn’t take any risks”?
It’s so disheartening when the people who are supposed to be protecting you treat you like a criminal. To tackle everyday Islamophobia, we must firstly acknowledge its existence. And once we’ve done this, we can finally start to repair the values of tolerance and diversity that Britain is supposed to be built on.