As I sat on the tube, gently rocking my way through the morning commute, I noticed a Muslim woman, veiled in a headscarf, sitting opposite me. The media and misguided stereotypes would have me believe that she was harbouring an explosive under the layers of material folded around her head, or perhaps that she was somehow linked to the Islamic State and was at that very moment drawing up elaborate plans for the next honour killing.
As a Muslim woman however, I knew better and smiled across at this stranger.
Now I don’t wear a headscarf and nor is there anything about my person that tells the world of my religious beliefs. Yet once upon a time, I did wear a headscarf that shouted out my religious views for all to hear and so I always feel a bond with my fellow women in Islam who choose to continue wearing what I no longer wanted. I know what it is to be the subject of gawping stares as strangers wonder what’s beneath that mysterious veil, as if you’re somehow hiding a second head as opposed to flowing locks.
I know what it is to be the instant object of misguided hatred, as if you’re plotting the demise of the western world.
I know what it is to be a walking symbol of perceived terrorism, as if you’re hiding some member of the Taliban under your floorboards.
And therefore, I know what it is to have someone smile at you, as if you’re just a random stranger who isn’t laden with the stereotypes of a fourteen hundred year old religion.
My smile went unanswered and I thought nothing of it, head down, ignoring my fellow passengers as etiquette dictates.
Yet I felt her gaze upon me and once more looked up. As our eyes met, I smiled again, more obviously this time, just in case she had missed the first one or shyness prevailed.
Finally, she acknowledged my attempt at ‘kindness to a stranger’ and replied with a scowl as she turned her nose up and with pursed lips, raised her eyebrows and shook her head.
The blatant disapproval laced across her features left me stunned as I quickly re-assessed my outfit, wondering what it was that had so obviously offended her. Was it my hair hanging down my back, or perhaps trousers that were too tight?
I didn’t know what it was, but in that moment I did hate many of my fellow Muslims; the ones who mix Islam and culture into a melting pot of stringent opinions and fire and brimstone theology.
I don’t know, and nor will I ever know, why my fellow commuter felt such hostility towards me, however, as a very obvious representative of Islam, she had given, even me, a fellow believer of a shared faith, a negative portrayal of Muslims.
Islam and its teachings, indeed it’s very foundations, are beautiful, inclusive and free of judgement, so why had this stranger shot so many judgements in my direction, so unnecessarily.
I will continue to love my religion and dress the way I want, because I do know better. However, I could have easily been a non-Muslim, who didn’t know better, and instead of leading with an example of understanding and peacefulness, she had helped add one more negative perception to the cairn, guiding the way for the media to continue on its journey of sensationalised stereotypes.