On Being a Brown Muslim Woman

This is the story of the time when I still used to wear the Hijab. I was 14. It was 2008. The year of the global recession, not that I knew what that it meant back then. I was flying from Lahore to Mecca to London to New York. Lahore as in “Back Home” and New York as in home, Mecca as in to perform the Umrah, and London as in the desi diaspora is everywhere and aunt’s daughter got married. It was a long, long summer. On my way, there was some turbulence, a snow storm if I remember correctly, so we landed in D.C instead of New York. Which was great because I had never been to D.C, and the next flight to New York was after 26 hours. I was with my father, and my younger sister, so I suggested that we go and see the white house since we were already there in the capitol, and had nothing to do but wait. And my dad, who is a very calm and composed brown man was furious that I had asked him of that. I was confused as to why was that an unreasonable request, therefore, I asked him as to why was he being unreasonable?

He replied by saying, “our last names and our skin doesn’t give us the luxury to visit such places” in whisper, since he didn’t want white people to think he was abusive (brown man, little girl, foreign language … insert stereotypes) but even in whisper he said it firmly … I was annoyed and defiant, because first of all, it’s just an old white building, and secondly, I am pretty sure brown people visit the white house. But my dad was persistent, kept saying “you don’t understand, just don’t ask for things we aren’t allowed to have.” So on and so forth.

It was infuriating because I thought he was being paranoid. But back then I didn’t know much of the experience that comes with living in a brown Muslim body for 40 years.

Instead of visiting the white building built by slaves, we just waited at the café, drank coffee, and ate food. My 14 year old angsty self, ignored my father, and gave him the “silent treatment.” However, in retrospect, it was an absolutely appalling thing to have done.

When they announced our flight I got up, took my stuff and walked away from my dad and my sister because again, me being me. I got in the line to go through the metal detectors before getting on the flight. There were a good 10 people between me and my dad. I walk through the metal detectors, there was no beeping, just a regular walk through. But this TSA agent, white, probably in her 40s, woman, took me aside as I walked through the machines and asked me to follow her. I have been “randomly” selected before for a search, so I thought this was that.

Usually they take you to a room, and if you are a minor, which I was, your parent is present there with you. She didn’t take me aside to a room. She literally took me aside to a quiet corner. She didn’t ask me for my passport or anything, so I thought she would just pat me down and let me go. But it wasn’t a pat down or a search.

She asked me to take off my hijab, so I did. (I knew she wasn’t allowed to ask me of that) but I stayed quiet and complied, because since the dawn of time, my father has been telling us “do as they say, don’t ask any question. Be respectful. Just stay quite …” So, I took off my hijab, she then pulls the hair tie from my hair and lets my hair loose. She says, “your men are so lucky, they don’t gotta worry about ya flaunting this to everyone” And then brushes her hands through my hair. I was weirded out by that but I didn’t think much of it. Plus, I didn’t want to end up on the “no fly list”, or the “terrorist watch.”

I just let it be, but then she gropes my chest and smirks. I was in shock, I didn’t know how to react at this point. She then grabs my behind, shakes it and says “just checking.” She then asks me to spread my legs and put my hands behind my head. But by the grace of Allah, someone came walking in the area. She quickly hands me back my scarf, says it’s all good and lets me go. I run to the nearest bathroom, I fix myself up and I find my father. We make our way home to Brooklyn, New York, and then life just went on. I never told my father what happened. Didn’t want to scare the brown man, he had spent 40 years’ worth, of what I had experienced once.

I am 23 now, and I think of that day a lot now than I ever did before, and trust me the TSA incident isn’t the worst kind of harassment I have experienced, but it is one that intersected with three different aspects of my identity. Race, gender and religious affiliation. Racialised misogynistic islamophobia is real. We live it. Everyday. That TSA agent had sexualised derogatory fantasies for “poor oppressed brown woman”. She was racist, misogynistic, Islamophobic and a pedophile.

This is one incident, one of many I, and many other brown Muslim women have encountered, and continue to encounter. From getting our hijab pulled off in the school cafeteria, to terrorist jokes, to rape and murder of our young girls, it is a lived experience. It is our social reality. And all of this is allowed to exist in a system that is inherently racist, misogynistic and Islamophobic.

The TSA was created after 9/11 as response to the terrorist attacks. They say what they may but it is nothing but a tool to harass the Muslim population. Statistically black and brown Muslims are the ones that are “randomly” selected the most for a strip search, end up on no fly lists and made so that are never able to go back home. These entities are nothing but agents for the systematic oppression of my people.

To end this story on a happier note, I did end up visiting the white house. A couple of times actually. And every time with a sign in my hand a fist in the air, because my father is old and tired and he needs to experience a moment in his life where he can feel that it’s okay to just be. Therefore, I must fight.

Rida Abdullah is a Pakistani Muslim American. She graduated with a BA in Political Science, and Criminal Justice, and is at present an Immigration Paralegal in New York City. She is currently in the process of getting her Juris Doctorate and hopes to be an International Human Rights lawyer. 

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