On Friday, October 19th, EKTA, the South Asian organization, celebrated their annual Mehndi Night, a night of celebrating South Asian cultures through food, dance, music, performances, trivia, presentations, and of course, Mehndi. This event is a cultural celebration, not a religious celebration; even though this was a secular event, some men going by in a car took this event as an opportunity to spew their bigotry with anti-Muslim taunts against students departing from the festivities. The fact that these men equated a celebration of people who were not like them with Islam shows their xenophobia and ignorance; unless the men had a talk with these students, they would not have known whether or not they were Muslim, as religion is not as obvious as some people would like to assume, so this incidence also reminds us of the xenophobia in this country.
When a hate crime happens, the event’s effects are not limited to the people involved. When someone says a bigoted comment about Muslims to a group of students, I take it personally because I am Muslim. It’s not the first time I’ve heard bigoted comments about Islam, nor will it be the last time. In the last decade, my religion has been under intense scrutiny, especially from people who don’t understand Islam.
Time and time again, I have listened to news anchors, pundits, so-called experts, religious leaders, and guests on news shows call my religion the worst of names, the one that gets me the most being “the religion from the pit of hell.” I’ve seen people rally against my religion and rally against freedom of religion with Islam specifically in the protesters’ minds. I’ve heard bigoted comments about Islam all over the news and I’ve seen people go along with it. I’ve heard Islam used as an insult or as a legitimate reason to describe someone as unworthy or not as good. I’ve seen the look in people’s eyes change when they find out I am Muslim, and I’ve heard the change in the tone of their voices from one of friendliness to one of uncertainty. I remember my fourth-grade teacher asking me if Islam was a religion of peace in front of the entire class, and my wanting to become invisible and praying that this wasn’t actually happening. I remember the dirty looks people gave me while I was walking to school when I was only eight and did nothing wrong except wear the hijab in public. I still fear people’s reactions to discovering my religious affiliation with Islam because it has not always been a positive experience. The most striking part about all these criticisms is that these people know nothing about Islam.
When confronted with the event that happened on Friday, October 19th, I felt the same anger, confusion, and fear I have felt for the past decade while I have been watching my religion misrepresented in the media and misunderstood and misinterpreted by the public. Reading the email sent out in response to the event, I was reminded of all the other hate I have had to face as Muslim in a country that fears Islam. I was reminded of that lost and isolated feeling I have had every single time I heard a bigoted comment about Islam; there is this feeling that there is not a place for Muslim students to turn when these incidents occur. In the administrative email response there were no specific resources listed for affected students, which can only lead me to assume that the administration expect students to be affected by this incident, and therefore implying this incident is not as hateful as it is. I feel that this is a minimizing of the situation, which makes me feel as though my anger is unjustified. There was no suggestion of counseling or conversation for affected students, and so I am left wondering if there is space to express anger – was this incident significant enough to foster discussion of feeling targeted? I asked myself if maybe I was overreacting, and I came to the conclusion that no, I am not overreacting, and if anything, I am under-reacting; I have a right to feel safe and secure, and if my college cannot provide that, then that is a failure of the college. I should not have to be on the lookout, something Dean Mahoney asked of me when she urges us to “be on alert this weekend.” Why should I be on alert in my own home where I am supposed to feel safe? Is administration afraid of a repeat of last semester, or do they really not think that I should feel devastated when I read that email? Even if they are afraid of a repeat of last semester, is that any reason to isolate and stifle the anger and hurt of the community members suffering? Throughout the following week, there was absolutely no discussion about this incident; I did not hear any of the students bring it up, and somehow, I am surprised. Why should I be surprised that students aren’t talking about an act of bigotry on their own campus where their own community members were attacked if administration is trying to minimize the event? Is an email sufficient, and should I be content with the handling of this situation?
My heart goes out to those students on the receiving end of these slurs and everyone else affected because I know what it feels like to hear hateful slurs about something you hold dear to your heart and to have a part of your identity attacked and have no support from the people who are supposed to be watching out for your well-being. My religion, Islam, has taught me to be a better person, and it keeps me grounded, so when I hear people saying hurtful things about it, I am left to wonder why, along with another million questions.
When I read Dean Mahoney’s email, I read, “Some men said some hurtful things about Muslims to some Smith students, and that was not nice. That’s what happened, and we can’t do anything to undo it. Watch out because other people may say bad things about Muslims.” I hope that there can be a recognition of the inadequate handling of the event, and I hope the administration can learn from the events that transpired after Mehndi Night so that if something similar should happen again, students aren’t left confused and angry again. Although I would have preferred for there to be no biased incidents against Muslims on campus or off campus, we can take this event as an opportunity to foster discussion about being Muslim in America and the injustices Muslims face.