My changed world

The world changed on September 11th. Especially my world.

As a young Muslim woman, I had always been aware that common misconceptions and stereotypes about Islam, apparent throughout the western world, could affect how others would treat me.

But I also knew that progress had been made. Over time, I realized that the political values of most Canadians included not only acceptance, but also appreciation of Canada’s diversity.

Cosmopolitan cities around the world were becoming friendlier places. Overt racism was becoming less common. And communities that had been divided through centuries of conflict and tension were coming together, particularly in diasporic youth cultures in the West.

Toronto based media personality Irshad Manji puts it best: “Diversity is like oxygen. I only notice it when it’s missing.” Visible minorities in Toronto had slowly become a majority, outnumbering the previous one – “whites”.

In Toronto, we see hijab (head covering worn by Muslim women) everywhere. Buses, shopping malls and schools are full of “veiled women.” I, myself, had been wearing one since I was nine years old.

Like a turban, yarmulka, or even a bandana, my hijab used to be a token of self-expression. It was something I was immensely proud of. It was something that defined me as an independent, confident woman who wasn’t afraid of the world.

My hijab made me feel liberated. It protected me from the sleazy gazes of the people around me. It was my security blanket. It was.

But on September 12th, the day after the tragic events in New York City, things changed within the blink of an eye. And they changed drastically.

While sitting on the subway on my way to university, I realized that while people usually fought for seats, pushing, shoving and even yelling, today was different. The seats on either side of me were empty.

“Must have beat the rush,” I thought to myself, but then looked up from my newspaper only to see the usual crowd reaching out for handrails and poles, waiting for an empty seat.

All of a sudden I was reduced to nothing more than a diseased rat that no one wanted to get too close to. I felt like I had a sign posted to my forehead that only I couldn’t see. A sign reading “Danger: Stay Away.”

As my stop approached and I stood up, people automatically moved out of my way to let me out. Almost like VIP treatment, I thought, except that it was accompanied by frowns and angry faces.

Toronto media was quickly bombarded with stories about “Islamic terrorism,” and “Islamic fundamentalism.” Unfortunately the two terms were used interchangeably.

For me, this meant that my hijab was no longer a form of security. Rather it became a hazard.

Hijab, a form of fundamentalism, was now something that defined me as a “terrorist.”

Within a matter of weeks the world returned to its state of intolerance. Decades of hard work and education for a world of harmony were destroyed and we returned to our ethnocentric ways of the past.

Racism was abundant, and hijab was not. Today, I don’t wear it. Today I am afraid to wear it.

But this too will change. And this change will begin with me. I’ve realized that more than intolerance, racism breeds fear. I will not let it defeat me. I will not let the world move backwards.

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