Opinion

I felt thoroughly British as a teen – until I put on a hijab and became visibly Muslim

Veiled Threat features vignettes from a decade and a half as a visible Muslim in Britain

Illustration: Kasia Kozakiewicz

My entire understanding of the world changed just before my 15th birthday, and it was all thanks to a piece of cloth. With a white, English mother and a Libyan Muslim father, I had gone under the radar my entire childhood. A home life of Turkey Twizzlers and Tracy Beaker after school had left me with the impression that I was British by birthright. I thought Britishness was woven into my genes, entwined in my lexicon and embedded in my cultural references. I didn’t think Britishness was something I needed to quantify, understand or think much about at all. It was just something I was. Right?

But as soon as I decided to begin wearing the hijab, having recently taken an interest in the religion of my father and my Libyan ancestors, the ground beneath me shattered and I saw my Britishness, and my whiteness, for the mirage it really was. Visibly othered for the first time in my life, I turned from a white(ish) British child into something foreign, something strange and threatening. I became, entirely overnight, a veiled threat.

The ironic and painful thing was that, really, not much had changed at all. I got on the same buses, walked the same streets, smiled at the same neighbours and bought sweets from the same corner shop. I went to the same school and sat with the same friends and zoned out in the same teachers’ lessons. But suddenly, I no longer blended in. My covered head was treated with suspicion and derision. My visibly foreignness garnered the same reaction as a contagious disease or a ticking bomb. 

Icy stares, pursed lips and loaded silences replaced the ease and normality with which I had navigated my life up until that point in my small Midlands hometown. Old ladies in the supermarket queue muttered about immigration as I walked by. Teenage boys called me ‘Taliban’ on the bus. Security guards followed me around the store and the frequency with which I was chosen for ‘random screening’ at the airport increased at least tenfold. 

At barely 15, this experience of becoming visibly Muslim in a nation as hostile and divisive as Britain came to define my entire life. It shaped everything: how I saw myself, how I viewed my own racial identity and how I understood the world around me. And, eventually, it provoked me to write my debut book Veiled Threat: On Being Visibly Muslim in Britain.

In it, I combine vignettes from my decade and a half as a visible Muslim. From training as an English teacher in an almost all-white school to navigating the world of Birkenstock-wearing yummy mummies as a new (hijab-wearing) mother. This, alongside political commentary on the manifold ways in which Muslim women are structurally discriminated against in our society, such as how social class and race compound our marginalisation, how politicians repeatedly scapegoat us and how counter-terror policies criminalise our communities.

Mostly, though, Veiled Threat is about the paradoxes that define our lived experiences as Muslim women. We are constantly, inescapably, both victim and threat. White feminists want to save us and the government wants to police us. Certain states want to mandate that we must uncover our bodies to prove our modernity and others scarcely see us as human at all.

The world is interested in Muslim women when we are burning our hijabs in the street, but not when we are murdered by western bombs in the name of liberation. On the television screen, we are perpetually depicted as domesticated and mundane – the object of our children’s search for freedom or our husband’s barbarism. We are so rarely given a voice, a story in our own right.

Veiled Threat is my attempt to dispel that. It doesn’t claim to speak for all Muslim women, but what it does offer is a narrative of visible Muslim womanhood that refuses to be folded up and slotted into the narrow confines of what we are told Muslim women are allowed to be.

Whether I am calling out my own community’s poor female prayer space provision or condemning the British state’s treatment of Shamima Begum, rallying against hypocrisies in the fashion industry or lambasting white feminism’s selective saviour complex, Veiled Threat is my offering to the ongoing conversation about how to secure liberation for all women – and how to do so without relying upon the very structures that were never built to include us in the first place. It’s an ode to no longer proving our humanity to a system that is blind to our worth. A rallying cry and a love letter all at once to my fellow visibly Muslim women to refuse to acquiesce, to resist the pressure to make our otherness palatable, to reject the paradoxes that confine us. 

Veiled Threat by Nadeine Asbali is out now (Biteback, £18.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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