This article is part of a special series exploring our stories as visibly Muslim women in the last two post-9/11 decades.
By Shereen Kassir
I still remember the day it happened. My mum and family were glued to the TV with tear-brimmed eyes. I was 10, but I remember vividly how the tragic events shook us, watching so many innocent lives lost, thinking of their families whose lives had so unfairly and horribly changed forever. But, what I did not know was how this event would have a lasting impact on how people perceived Muslims, including myself. I did not know that it would make people perceive the word “Muslim” synonymous with “terrorist.” And I sure as hell did not know that I, a young woman in Sydney, Australia (thousands of miles away from Ground Zero) who chose to wear the hijab, would live fighting these misconceptions and Islamophobia for years to come.
Fast forward to being a second-year university student about a decade after 9/11, humiliatingly explaining to the Student and Equity Officer that unlike what our Associate Professor told my entire class, my religion forbade any acts of terror or “blowing up planes in buildings.” I found myself trying to explain, even though no explanation was needed, that what our lecturer just said was blatant racism, vilification, Islamophobic and unprofessional.
I was met with “I understand your frustration, but if you wish for your complaint to remain anonymous, there’s nothing we can do. We can only thank you for your feedback.”
The author at her university graduation; image source: Shereen Kassir
I was eager to immerse myself in my journey as a hardworking student at one of the most prestigious universities in Australia, but I quickly learned that being visibly Muslim doesn’t come without its challenges, even in places that were meant to be a “safe learning environment.” And, it wasn’t only going to be from passersby or ignorant people – you know, non-significant characters in my life – but from a highly regarded Associate Professor who would be overseeing my optometry degree for the next five years.
When a patient would deny consent for me to observe their treatment as a student but would grant my non-Muslim classmate permission to do so, it didn’t bother me too much. I had come to kind of expect it. But when it came to sitting in a lecture room learning about cultural competence, then having your A/Prof say in front of the whole class “…but I don’t know what religion of peace tells you to blow up planes in buildings,” followed by awkward looks from your classmates in your direction because you happen to be one of the only two hijabis in the entire course – that I did not expect. And quite frankly I wasn’t prepared for it.
To have such a highly-regarded person, who you’re meant to look up to, attack your identity and religion so openly in front of your friends and classmates in a place that was meant to be a safe learning environment, well, this was a shock to say the least for the young girl in me who was just trying to earn an education and navigate the world and her identity. I was made aware of my hijab more than ever.
The Islamophobic aggression from the lecturer did not end there. She remarked once while I was measuring my height for a research study that I should probably “remove a few centimeters from my height reading, because God knows what you hide under that hijab.”
I contemplated proceeding with my complaint and biting the bullet of having my identity published, but I was advised against that for the possible repercussions it might have on my reputation as being the person who “overreacts” or is “too difficult to deal with.” Or how it could affect my academic performance, added to the reality that, as a new student versus a lifelong Associate Professor, the odds did not sway in my favor. So, I was told to focus my energy on completing my degree instead, and just let it go.
Recently (and years after I graduated) I shared my experience on my public Instagram
account. To my shock, about 10 current students and alumni contacted me sharing similar racist and Islamophobic experiences by the same lecturer – and in some cases, with the exact same words and situations
I had experienced. The one thing we had in common? We were all visibly Muslim as women who wear the hijab.
The author with her children; image source: Shereen Kassir
The amount of guilt I felt in that moment – for not fighting harder back then to put an end to it and realizing that it had continued to impact generations of young Muslim women – haunted me. That pushed me to join forces with the affected students and alumni, and we are currently undergoing an official complaint and investigation process with the university.
The events of 9/11 have undoubtedly changed the lives of many people, not just in America but around the world. The days around it are so hard for many people, filled with so much loss and so much grief. But, it is also important to acknowledge the ricocheted surge in islamophobia. Being visibly Muslim post 9/11 has been a hard thing to do. Somedays you may wear your hijab prouder than other days. You may feel scared of how others might perceive you, treat you, or with what you might be associated with and what they’d say.
But, I personally still choose to wake up each day, wear my hijab and spread love in the hope that by doing so there will be less hate in the world.
Shereen Kassir is an optometrist, content creator, modest fashion aficionado, and mother of two girls based in Sydney. Shereen aims to tell stories by intertwining modest fashion with her career, motherhood and lifestyle. She has chaired the subcommittee board of Young Optometrists Inc (NSW). She is currently the spokesperson for an ongoing collective complaint in relation to racist incidents against a group of students and alumni. Find her in Instagram at @talesandveils