Now you know that I am not from Afghanistan. But because of my hijab the young boy saw me only as Muslim. He did not make the connection that I was, or could be, from Africa. I’ve lived with this my whole life: being misplaced, pigeonholed and forced to confront belonging – or rather a lack of it – almost daily.
As a 26-year-old Black British Muslim woman I now see that we are hugely underrepresented in mainstream media and culture. I still don’t feel accepted by many parts of British society.
This was a standard-issue teenage altercation with a classmate over scented glitter gel pens. Why was my race suddenly being attacked?
Growing up, I would hear that I’m not really Black because I’m Muslim and also that I’m not really Muslim because I’m Black. It was, frankly, exhausting.
I didn’t know it but that day, at 13 years old, wouldn’t be the last time I wondered where I would be able to carve out space to exist safely and peacefully.
Black British Muslims have been part of the fabric of British society for centuries. Shakespeare’s Othello, for instance, is thought to be a comment on relationships with Black Muslims who arrived from north Africa to live in Elizabethan England. Today, Britain’s Black Muslims comprise 10.1% of the country’s total Muslim population.
Many of these faith schools are run by members of the south Asian community, which makes sense proportionally, given that they make up a larger number of Muslims in the UK. But behind closed doors, casual racism was common.
As conversations about race unfurl at lightning speed, I keep coming back to the complex web of prejudices that Black British Muslim women like me face. Where do we fit in? How do we find our place in Britain, a space where our faith can intersect with our Blackness?
“Shouldn’t Somalia be next to Pakistan? You guys don’t look like Africans,” said one girl to me.
Another boy proudly told us all how his grandfather kept darker skinned people as slaves: “That is the way Allah meant it.”
Even in my own Somali community there is toxic colourism, whereby family members with fairer skin are valued more highly than those whose skin is darker. Somehow this only really relates to women. Light skin privilege and its pernicious impact is something I have frequently been forced to confront even at the dinner table in my own family home.
There is an unspoken hierarchy within the Muslim community, with fairer skinned Muslims from the Middle East at the top and Black Muslims ranking somewhere towards the bottom. This hierarchy is almost certainly lost on most white people.
When I was 19 and somewhat more naive, I was dating a French man. In my late teens I guess I was, at best, more impressionable and, at worst, easily amused.
He sang? Wow.
He had a postgraduate degree? Yep. A full-on intellectual.
He wore secondhand clothes because he didn’t believe in the fashion industry? Be still my beating heart!
Alas, it was too good to be true. One evening when we were strolling along the South Bank in London, he told me so innocently that he and his friends had always wanted to sleep with east African Muslim women because there’s just “something about them”.
I am able to joke about this but the reality is perturbing. How can you fetishise and categorise an entire group of women and reduce them to a purely sexual function? Did he once think about how that might make me feel? There has been countless academic work conducted and think pieces written about how the fetishisation of Black women’s bodies has historically been a way of undermining us and refusing to allow us to exist on our own terms.
Despite my experiences, racial equality is actually central to Islam. In his last known public sermon, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) stated: “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a Black person or of a Black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”
As conversations about race unfurl at lightning speed in Britain, I keep coming back to the complex web of prejudices that Black British Muslim women like me face. Where do we fit in? How do we find our place in Britain, a space where our faith can intersect with our Blackness? How do we open up dialogues about the prejudices we face? I don’t have the answers yet but recognising the need to ask these questions feels like a very good place to start.