By Dr. Muna Saleh
I often feel like I’m invisible.
I know this reads like I’m exaggerating.
But I’m 100% serious.
As a Palestinian, I have always been made to felt this way. Well, except at home of course. I lived in an intergenerational home and my beloved grandmother, Sittee Charifa (Allah yirhama), would share her stories of and love for Palestine. But she would also share her heartbreak. When I was ten years old, I learned that Sittee lived with a bullet lodged in her back as a result of being violently dispossessed and displaced from her Palestinian village during the Nakba of 1948. At home, we would constantly look for any information to learn the latest news about Palestine. But Palestine and Palestinians were never even mentioned in my schooling … until I was in grade 12, when we were referred to in our social studies textbook (and by my teacher) as not as Palestinians but as “Arabs,” literally denying my existence and the existence of Palestinians as a people.
However, I am not only invisibilized as a Palestinian — I am also invisibilized in different ways as a Muslim woman in hijab. I decided to wear hijab when I was 21; I was newly graduated from my BEd program, and had just found out I was pregnant with my first child. I felt strong and ready to express my faith more publicly.
In truth, I felt the need to do so. You see, I decided to wear hijab mere months after the 9/11 attacks, at a time when Muslims were increasingly vilified in media and targeted in public places. Sittee Charifa (Allah yirhama), my Mom, my sisters, all my aunts, the majority of my cousins, and many of my closest friends wore hijab. As a light-skinned Palestinian Muslim woman, I knew I was living with the privilege of being racially ambiguous, and I felt the need to be more like so many of the women who sustain me — to embrace all of who I am, without apology.
And I don’t regret my decision. Not for a second. But I cannot express the vast differences in my experiences outside my familial spaces from one day to the next — between the day before and the day I started to wear hijab.
I was bracing for vitriol in public spaces because I had heard too many stories of Islamophobic violence by then to imagine that it wouldn’t happen to me. And it did. Not right away, and not all the time, but pretty consistently over the last 20 years. I experienced the belligerence of racist xenophobes who would yell “Go home!” or “Take that f’ing rag off your head!” and many other awful encounters. Like when a middle aged white man shoved his cart into my legs at the grocery store because he felt I was placing my groceries too slowly on the conveyor belt. When I asked him why he would do such a thing to anyone, let alone a woman, he scoffed with disgust, “Woman? Look at you. You are no woman.” These experiences left me shaken (they still do) but they also leave me with increased resolve to continue to live life—and dress—in ways I see fit for myself.
I was not, however, expecting the less extreme (but still hurtful) reactions of people on the street and at the grocery store, and even people who I used to call friends. Suddenly, I was made to feel hypervisible and invisible at the same time. Suddenly, I was ghosted by people who I thought I was close with, including people I considered my “teacher friends.” Suddenly, people would either stare at me or studiously avoid looking at me in situations where I had been accustomed to an acknowledgement of some sort. For example, when I would hold the door open for someone, and they would often walk right through without saying a word. Or when I would walk around my neighbourhood and offer a greeting to a neighbour, and they would not return it. It was the strangest sensation of being made to feel like I stood out so starkly and yet simultaneously unseen.
Over time, I have become accustomed to this sensation and barely register it anymore … until I am jolted towards a re-realization of it. Like when I am with my eldest in public places. She’s 18 years old, doesn’t wear hijab, and often tells me that her experiences (at the mall or the grocery store) are very different when she is alone compared to when she is with me. She says that even when people aren’t outright racist (she has witnessed some of the Islamophobic attacks hurled my way), they are just generally less kind. Or how when I used to go for walks around my neighbourhood with a white colleague, I witnessed the way people offered a neighbourly hello to her, but avoided eye contact with me altogether. During our walk one day, I ruefully/laughingly commented how friendly people are when I’m with her. My friend looked at me in shock and said that she finds that people aren’t nearly as friendly with her when she is with me.
In professional and/or academic spaces, the re-realization screams out at me when I am introduced as an educator and assistant professor. Often, the response to my physical presence is a heady combination of condescension (“Oh good for you!”) and awkward silence. It is at these times that I am reminded that even when people are looking right at you, they can still refuse to truly see you.
I don’t share this part of my story with most people. And I have never shared it in such a public way before. Even as I type these words, I’m worried about sending it out into the world. To be honest, I have avoided writing about my hijab as much as possible because I am so tired of being reduced to my hijab. There is so much more to who I am. However, I share it now, not for pity, nor even for compassion, but because I feel the need to. I feel the urgency to share this part of my story as a Muslim woman in hijab, mother, researcher, scholar, and (grand)daughter of Palestinian refugees living within amiskwaciy-wâskahikan in Treaty 6 lands because yet another Muslim woman in hijab has been the target of public violence in Alberta (the Canadian province I have lived in my whole life), violence located at the intersections of systems of anti-Black racism, misogyny, and gendered Islamophobia. I feel the need to share this part of my story because Muslim women in hijab (and others who choose to wear “religious symbols”) who live in Quebec are being subjected to state-sponsored, racialized exclusion and violence through the enactment of Bill 21 — legislation which makes it illegal for anyone who wears “religious symbols” to teach at public schools.
I know that I cannot be the only person who is made to feel so hyper/in/visible. So I also share this part of my story for us — for all my hijabi sisters, and especially my fellow Muslim educators and all the Muslim children and youth in our care, who may at times feel the same way. And because I know that many of my Muslim sisters not only contend with gendered Islamophobia but also with the intersectional violence of systems of anti-Black racism, anti-Indigeneity, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, poverty, misogyny, xenophobia, and colourism.
And I share parts of my story for you – you who are reading this right now. If you have ever felt unseen, you are not alone. If you have ever felt erased or belittled by people’s reaction and/or rejection of you, you are not alone. If you have ever felt angry, frustrated, and pained because of the lack of recognition of your inherent dignity and worth, you are not alone. If you have ever felt even more determined to live life on your own terms, unapologetically—joyfully even—you are not alone.
Importantly, I don’t only want to share my pain. It is real and it is ongoing, and I cannot and should not deny that. However, I also need to share my love with, and for you, too. I also need to share my joy. Because this, too, is a part of my story. Over the last 20 years, I have learned the beautiful wisdom of this poem by nayyirah waheed (from her book salt.):
“if you show
someone the sun in your bones
and they reject you
you must remember.
they hurt themselves this very same way.
Alhamdulillah, I have learned that others’ rejection and refusal to truly appreciate the fullness of my being is not about me. It is about them. I am getting better at remembering this. I am getting better at reminding myself that those who harbour hatred need to work on themselves … and get out of my/our way.
Because of my experiences and commitments, my latest research is a narrative inquiry into the experiences of Muslim refugee mothers of dis/abled children. As a mother to an autistic child and and as an intergenerational survivor of violent Palestinian displacement, I wanted my Muslim sisters with refugee experiences to know that they are seen. And loved. And that their stories and experiences matter. While this work is often difficult, because it is intensely emotional labour, I do it with all my heart and with profound love for us by centering us. I do it with immense gratitude for the sun in my bones. And yours, too. Alhamdulillah.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Lois Marshall Barker (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).