My Label and Me: I'm Muslim and you will not erase my humanity
It’s Friday night and I’m on a late train home from Birmingham to London.
The carriage is full of tired faces of commuters trying to ease the work week off them and drunken slurs from those who choose to drink it down in cans of Fosters bought just for the journey.
There are two white men sitting opposite me and they are strange spots of paleness among a sea of colour.
For once, most of us are black and brown, with our skin shining against bright outfits, such as the green and red hijabs the group of Muslim women behind me are wearing.
I exchange looks with the women and we roll eyes together, our silence an entire language.
They ask me where I’m from and I curtly reply ‘London’.
The colour of my skin doesn’t look like London and they insist, ‘No, where are you from from’.
I tell them I’m half Egyptian and half Irish and they roar loudly in appreciation, before telling me how exotic I am. They also ask if I’ve ridden a camel.
Then, they say that I’m a ‘good-looking lass’ and I see the fantasy in their eyes.
They in turn see the anger in mine and call me ‘feisty’ – telling me how they like feisty women.
I am too tired and on my own, so I say nothing and bow my head back to my book.
The journey continues this way.
Us trying to mind our business, them constantly and aggressively trying to pull words from us.
Over the course of the train ride we are rebranded, labelled something new.
Terrorist. Exotic. Foreign.
We get off the train with new names we never asked for and identities that have been given to us.
I want to tell them that my label is writer, poet, feminist and freedom fighter. Those are the names and labels I wear on my chest with pride.
Instead, I’m now part of a terrorist group that they are afraid of, but a woman they will fantasise over late at night when the alcohol has dried up and the music has stopped playing.
That’s the things with labels.
They are wonderful and empowering when you’re the one choosing them.
They are an opportunity to be a new person, become a different human and grow into yourself in diverse ways.
They’re refreshing and rejuvenating and can become a rallying cry, your own shout for independence and freedom.
In essence, it allows you to craft your own identity and image.
They can be really beautiful things, but the minute you’re excluded from the process of choosing your label is the same instant they transform into something else completely.
They become heavy and distorted, a yolk around your neck that changes the person you are and even the direction your life can take.
At various intervals, I have been given the labels terrorist, exotic, sinner, extremist, oriental, Jihadi and fanatic.
They have been placed upon me and in doing so have begun to frame my narrative for me, completely cutting me out of the conversation.
It’s an uncomfortable sensation to be spoken about in a way that misrepresents you, yet knowing there isn’t much you can do to change the story being told.
I often think back to that train ride and the shared glances of exasperation that passed between us all and how frustrating it was for everyone.
Not only was our collective journey interrupted by two men who lacked any cultural awareness, but more so because our identities were framed in ways that were not true to any of us.
We were reduced to labels.
We became nothing more than caricatures of communities or problems that exist, our humanity erased in just a few bawdy jokes and some drunken laughter.
We had all become something that we were not, and that’s one of the biggest dangers with labelling other people.
Rarely will you get it right and the most you’ll do is erase their own ability to tell their story because you’re insisting on telling it for them.
It’s time we remember that we are the only people who have a right to tell our stories and labels will only ever work when you’ve assigned them to yourself.
Labels is an exclusive series that hears from individuals who have been labelled – whether that be by society, a job title, or a diagnosis. Throughout the project, writers will share how having these words ascribed to them shaped their identity — positively or negatively — and what the label means to them.
If you would like to get involved please email [email protected]
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