Islamophobia on the Go

Today I had an Islamophobic moment. It started innocently enough. I was sitting at the back of the bus trying quite unsuccessfully to untangle my ipod headphones, and at the end of my row, two ladies were having a conversation about the intricacies of Tom Cruise’s love life. The next thing I knew, Person # 1 was (loudly) trying to convert her seat companion to her religion and nearly everyone on the bus was turning in their seats to see what was going on. What should have been merely a memorable incident though, quickly became intolerable when she began spouting vile nonsense about Islam to help her cause. My ears started to tingle under my scarf, my face was red, and I had no idea what to do. What is the right way to behave in a situation like that? Is it better to sit and bear it, or to interrupt the conversation knowing that your brief words probably won’t make a difference to the deep-seated prejudices involved?

It’s a question I’ve never been very good at answering, even though by wearing a headscarf for the past several years, I’ve certainly gotten a chance to witness the irrational fear people have of Islam more than once.

What kind of fear you ask?

There have been times on trains, in coffeeshops, and in airports where I’ve turned around to figure out the source of the uncomfortable “I’m being watched” feeling I have, only to see someone staring intently at me and holding a book with blood and and some version of the words “ISLAM: WHY YOU SHOULD BE SCARED” emblazoned on the front cover.

I’ve also worked in organizations where the first thing my new coworkers have told me is that they’re scared of Muslims. I’ve even taken classes where students have announced that Islam is in essence a barbaric faith, and that Iraq deserves to be bombed out of existence. The list goes on and on..

Perhaps today’s bus ride caught me off guard though, because for a while now, I’ve tried to be really careful about shielding myself from sources of Islamophobic nonsense. Here’s how:

1) I don’t take classes that are about security, or risk, or terrorism, or anything that could possibly elicit statements that bring me to tears.

2) I try to ease the nervousness some people might feel around me by smiling to others, trying not to wear black and keeping my prayer beads and books somewhat tucked away when I’m on the go.

3) I don’t read/watch mainstream news, because the way Muslims/Arabs are portrayed drive me crazy. On occasion when I do read the news, I try to read material from a variety of sources (ie-Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the Observer etc) to get a well rounded perspective.

4) I try to be patient when answering questions people have about Islam. Even when the questioner involved is accosting me on the elevator or at the water cooler, or in line for an ice cream cone.

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Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at