In 2022, I moved away from home for university to pursue a Masters degree down south. At first I was nervous to meet new people. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how difficult I’ve found making friends as a Hijabi, especially in new social settings. However, this time my course was majority women of colour, filling me with a sense of relief. I assumed being amongst women of colour would mean that I wouldn’t have to constantly explain microaggressions. I thought it would be easier to form relationships, unlike other chapters of my life that were filled with faux friendships and racism. I envisioned a clean slate, to start fresh without the politics which enshrouded my relationships in undergrad. Unfortunately I didn’t realise that Islamophobia would remain the same with women of colour, only to manifest in a different way.
Muslim women have perennially found it challenging to make friends for numerous reasons. The first obvious hurdle seems to be the emphasis on drinking and clubbing during freshers week, where relationships germinate from drunk antics and non-sober thoughts. Whether or not Muslim women are present at the party does not affect the hyper-visibility and invisibility we experience in white dominated spaces. We are stared at for our visible difference in clothing and social choices, and yet invisible in the room, someone to actively ignore and dismiss. The presence of a hijabi in the room can do comedic wonders for unsettling the atmosphere of a room. .
Imagine my relief and delight on knowing I was about to embark on a South Asian studies course with other South Asian women. We bonded one night in the college accommodation of one of my course mates. Eight pairs of shoes were lined up outside her bedroom and we all laughed with glee, joking about the South Asian custom to remove footwear before entering a home. I felt like for the first time in my life I fit in with ease, that these women understood me, the desi jokes and strict patriarchal customs. I took my hijab off to which the girls cooed with compliments. But my grand illusion of a perfect brown girl friendship group began to crack when one day I decided to share some of the intimacies of my religion, the principles I stuck by. One of the girls questioned me in hesitation “you’re orthodox?” What she was really concerned with was that I was a practising Muslim who willingly prayed, kept her fasts and adored my religion.
From that point on I was bombarded with Islamophobia cosplayed as ‘unique’ philosophical questions. How do you reconcile feminism and your religion? Where do your morals and principles begin?
In addition to the intense scrutiny of how I lived my life, I realised that I was being judged for being judgemental, despite not offering any criticisms of the way the girls lived their life. More often than not, my friends would start sentences with “I know people are judging me” whilst looking at me. I initially thought this was a passive comment, a sincere statement. I realised after talking with other Muslim women that judgement seemed to inhibit any close relationships we formed, and that we had similar feelings on how we were being treated by the other girls. Whenever topics on gender, sex and feminism were discussed within the group, or things that were not permissible in Islam like drugs and alcohol, it was implied that judgement was inevitable from me and the other Muslim women present, despite our silence.
We were not at all judgemental, we understood the nuances and complications of life, but we were being racialised as judgemental because we were Muslim women. We were stereotyped as conservative and anti-feminist, when in reality the chaos of our lives was up to judgement too. We just considered Allah’s judgement the most important.
I experienced this feeling, of being judged for being (apparently) judgemental, throughout my time at university. The comments were explicit as “don’t tell Sharm, or she’ll judge”, when I was present in the room. I have another memory etched in my mind, where one of my friends had boasted that they had “done a Sharm”. When I asked what that meant, they responded that they had been outspoken with their judgements to a group of friends. My heart sank. At that moment I simply asked if they could recall a time I had ever done this, to which they thought for a while, eventually replying “no”.
I’ll admit, I’m passionate about social justice issues and politics, but so were my friends – after all I had befriended them based on this likeness. But these similarities did not dissipate the differences between me and my friends, the political symbol of the Hijab and the label Muslim dictated how our demeanours were perceived in social gatherings. Other people would be outspoken about their opinions on political issues, whereas I bit my tongue to avoid being labelled as loud, condescending and of course judgemental. I soon realised that no matter how hard the flesh in my mouth was clamped between my teeth, I would always be branded with this racial stereotype.
In a discussion I had with other Muslim women in my cohort, my closest friend revealed to me that people would consistently talk about her as if she was a machine, someone who had it all together and was resistant to breaking down. She was revered as someone who was good at maintaining boundaries, never conceding to discomfort. In my conversation with her, I confessed that people always called me “scary”, “intimidating” or referred to my ability to set boundaries as an admirable yet daunting concept. Our conversation ended with the cathartic yet sombre conclusion that it was no coincidence that all the Muslim women in the cohort were collectively identified as girls who were sassy and brazen, and therefore undeserving of tender emotional support.
Another friend revealed to me that her identity as a Muslim was questioned by other people of colour because she did not wear a hijab. During the month of Ramadan, it was assumed that she didn’t perform “ritualistic” practices because of her lack of apparent conservative social dress, to which she humbly replied that the reason why she was eating was because she was menstruating, and fasting is a discipline not a ritual. This particular friend told me that our mutual South Asian friends were apprehensive in approaching her because she didn’t fit the necessary category of modest hijabi. People were confused about what topics to bring up when she was around. Can we talk about the things we normally do? Or do we have to tone it down because the Muslims have arrived? The crowd of people would stifle their laughs once we had joined the conversation, readjusting their grins to awkward smiles.
Perhaps my “brazen” attitude brought me to breaking point, as one night I confronted the girls and informed them about a ‘friend’ who had consistently made Islamophobic comments to other people in the cohort. I expressed the remarks that were made about my clothes, morals and the religion was ridiculed more generally. I was unfortunately gaslighted as the girls alluded to the rhetoric that Islamophobic comments do not translate into an Islamophobic character. Ironically, I once again felt judged for being judgemental, that I shouldn’t have said anything and that I was overreacting.
The topic was approached with hesitation as the girls pondered how to approach this ‘friend’ without making them feel bad. I was not subject to the same empathy, as the signifiers that they had assigned me: “tough”, “brazen”, “outspoken” was apparently enough of a support system. My heart singed at the protectiveness the girls felt for the ‘friend’ and not me. I was broken, but found solace in expressing all the rage, upset and loneliness I felt to other Muslim women of colour on my course, who consoled me and validated my experiences. My relationships with the girls are better now that we’ve spoken more about my feelings, but the lack of tenderness and empathy I received at the time has left an open wound that no one is attending to. Apologies have been uttered, hugs have been exchanged. I announced to the girls that this was not a conversation I was willing to have again.
I thought being around Brown girls would be a safe space, but Islamophobia is so deeply institutionalised, it is no wonder that it manifests in every facet and creak of the university, seeping into interpersonal relationships. Socialist politics are loudly proclaimed by students, all my Indian South Asian friends denounce the Islamophobia that the current Indian government has fostered, and yet the girls were willing to treat my experience of racism as a personal conflict rather than a serious political issue. We have had deep conversations since, where emotional sparks fly between us as we understand why we are friends and how much we love each other. It feels like conversations about racism and Islamophobia are best digested in fragments, which is how I am now navigating my friendships. Maybe a more substantial rant would be too outspoken. I’m glad I persevered with these friendships; I cherish them deeply and these conversations have only brought us closer together. But I am more cognisant than ever that when I enter a new social space be that work, university or a book club, my whole life will be judged before I can even say hello.
Sharmin is a 24 year old Publishing Assistant at Oxford University Press. She is from Newcastle and writes essays and stories in her spare time. She is the creator of Brown Girls Write, a writing workshop set up for marginalised women of colour in Newcastle.