I’ve spent a year interacting with my friends on screen without a hijab wrapped around my head, and even though they can’t see me during a lockdown, it’s like they know I’ve uncovered myself and feel closer to me this way. Somehow I’m closer to people in a lockdown than I have ever been physically. People aren’t interacting with my hijab but with me.
Now I’m anxious to reintegrate back into a more COVID secure society where my hijab and the covert racism which comes with it is the defining feature of my social interactions. I’m nervous to feel like a secondary friend, someone who is only worth meeting separately instead of a staple within a group of friends. I’m nervous that people will see my hijab and not see me.
Prior to the pandemic, I found it hard to make friends at university. When I was in my first year, I worked in a group with people I was meeting for the first time. We gathered around a group table and discussed the work alongside getting to know each other. It was obvious to me that the people I was working with were paying me no attention, and even speaking over me if I had anything relevant to say about what we were working on. I still remember that experience to be the most isolating moment of my time at university.
It was only when I took my hijab off at an all-girls university event that these people approached me to make conversation. My personality hadn’t radically altered from when we had first met, nor did I feel more confident in any way, but they certainly seemed more relaxed and open to talk to me. I had my suspicions as to why all of a sudden I was added to group chats and asked to be sat next to in the lecture theatre, but I thought I was being too cynical. I went on to think of them as my friends.
“I’m nervous that people will see my hijab and not see me.”
When I ask my Muslim friends about similar feelings of isolation, they seem to come to the same conclusion that alcohol is the factor which excludes Muslims in social spaces. But even as lockdown was imposed and Zoom quizzes were introduced, I was still being excluded from digital activities with friends I had been in contact with since high school. I felt like I should be more included now the social environment of my non-Muslim friends wasn’t a bar or a nightclub, but no.
Ultimately, I confronted them with my assumptions, adding that their inadvertent ‘white girls only’ attitude was making me miserable. Their response? I was reprimanded for accusing them of being implicitly racist. And then they cut me off. From then, I realised that alcohol wasn’t the definitive factor of why I can’t make friends. It was racism.
Reading bell hooks reinforced my reality; teaching me that when it comes to picking friends, racism is very much real and alive for hijabi women. hooks talks about how white people can have good intentions, but still exude white supremacist thinking and racist attitudes. My ‘friends’ were more outraged at my calling them out on their exclusivity, rather than how I was feeling as their only South Asian Muslim friend. My intentions were not to vilify my them, but discuss and overcome how I was feeling and being treated by them.
Similar situations would arise when my friends would strive to maintain friendships with other white girls who were seen as ‘bullies’ and were inexcusably cruel, whilst I was cut off for expressing my feelings. This led me to realise that my relationship with my friends was not equivalent to the status of friendship that they had given each other. No matter how badly they hurt each other, their whiteness solidified their friendships.
“My hijab is the first thing people notice when they meet me, and from this stems a multitude of racist stereotypes.”
At this point, I was pretty determined to maintain friendship stability, especially after grieving my recent friendship break ups. I uncovered my hair at an all-girls event and welcomed the inclusivity that I had been craving for so long. This is the moment I realised that my hair being visible approximated me to whiteness. The same whiteness which hooks refers to as the bonding element which encourages white people to be friends with each other. The existence of my hijab isn’t the reason why I can’t make friends – it’s the racism from white people who treat me so differently, assuming I won’t have a Geordie accent when I open my mouth. I have found that white people would often avoid sitting next to me because of my hijab, finding that mingling with other white people is ‘easier’.
There’s definitely a pressure for hijabi women to uncover their hair to conform to an approachable appearance which satisfies the white gaze. Being online for the majority of lockdown was a safe space for me. My personality was judged for my (hilarious) tweets rather than the ‘first impressions’ bias that women who are hyper-visible are disadvantaged with.
“Ultimately, my visibility is what prevents me from being visible.”
My hijab is the first thing people notice when they meet me, and from this stems a multitude of racist stereotypes. Often people have told me they didn’t expect me to speak English, or that the reason I wasn’t invited to certain events was because the way I dress gave the impression I wouldn’t be comfortable. Ultimately, my visibility is what prevents me from being visible; paints me as somebody to ignore when choosing who to sit next do on the first day of university.
The easing of lockdown is something to celebrate, but I can’t help but feel nervous about compromising myself, by showing my hair as a condition for making friends in white spaces. A compromise so that they feel more comfortable around me. Online spaces have been a solace, less to do with typing on a keyboard with my hair free and loose around my shoulders, but not being visible or subject to the white gaze and the preconditions attached in order to make friends. As a racialised hijabi woman, I’ve decided to stick to my non-white friends for now, for my mental health, both while lockdown eases and white people unpick their racist biases.
Sharmin is a second year undergraduate student studying International Relations and Politics with an interest in anti-capitalist/imperialist literature. @SharmIslam
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