I find few spaces to talk about what it means to be Black and Muslim and Hijabi as well as what it means to be a Black Muslim woman, and when I try and speak about these dilemmas in public, I immediately find myself pushed to the periphery in supposedly ‘safe’ spaces.
Black is not a marker of identity many Africans I know would readily accept, and as someone who is from a country that is majority Muslim; with Arab and Asian cultural influences (as well as Euro-Colonial), I have always found it difficult to find my place in Black British identification.
I have memories of being told my features were not ‘Black enough’, my hair was not Black enough, my food was not Black enough. My earliest encounters with ‘race’ not being with White people, but with people that looked like me, in skin tone anyway.
I went to an extremely diverse primary and secondary school, and spent most of my childhood, trying to be what I was told was ‘Black’. I begged my mother to ‘relax’ my hair because the ‘Black’ girls in my class had; even though I wore a scarf, and no one would see. I changed the way I spoke and felt self-conscious speaking in my mother-tongue with my siblings in public, becoming acutely aware of how similar the Somali language sounds to Arabic.
When I could not reconcile my need to feel a sense of belonging with my Black peers and my unwillingness to compromise my love of culture and faith, I began to resent my skin. I felt mocked in spaces with people that looked like me; remaining invisible when I did not speak and hyper-visible when I did.
Into adulthood, those spaces remain unchanged. Now, also encountering Whiteness and Islamophobia simultaneously, there are even fewer safe spaces. The childhood jibes about my inauthentic Blackness, are now performed rhetoric within the ‘Black academic’ community. I am again, in spaces with people that look like me (in skin anyway), who are Islamophobic in ways that penetrate deeper than I’ve ever known.
It is no longer about whether or not I look ‘Black’ but rather how far removed I must be from the ‘Black experience’ because of supposed ‘Islamic colonialism’ (a leading Black academic referred to it as such). When I try and share the contributions of Islam throughout history to the present day, I find myself defending my faith in ‘Black spaces’; seemly stepping outside of my skin and becoming an outsider trying to convince ‘them’ that Islam is not synonymous with ‘bad’. Now I am not naïve to history but even as I write this, I am resisting the urge to over-explain. I find myself having to make clear that faith in the Black community does not just mean Christianity, African spiritualism or an atheism. The three biggest African communities in Britain; Nigerians, Ghanaians and Somalis are no strangers to Islam… and yet very few Black spaces, acknowledge this.
And it is not just in the ‘Black’ spaces where my identities are challenged. The Muslim community is presented as monolithic. To be Muslim means to be Arab or South Asian and although influences in the Somali culture mean that even for the less religiously inclined, there are indistinguishable crossovers between culture and faith, it is in the every practices between Muslims that Anti-Blackness is most evident.
As a Black Muslim woman I know I must simultaneously navigate the various stereotypes that are held about Black people and of Muslims in this society. And I know that I must also contend with the multitude of issues both of these communities have within and towards one another. There is Islamophobia in the Black community and there is Anti-Blackness in the Muslim community.
I have grown into my skin and have learnt to separate it from a rhetoric that tells me, my Blackness has been polluted. I am my mother hue, marked by the red Earth that coats the shores of Africa’s horn. My Blackness is ancestral, and its nomadic roots are given strength by all that is has embraced along the way. Islam has been a part of Somalia for thousands of years; it is a part of me.
But my experience of being a Black Muslim in the public sphere, has been to be either Black or Muslim, rarely afforded the space to be both.
I reflect on this quote and I’m reminded that we don’t lose the parts us that people simply refuse to see….
“I am an invisible man…I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” -Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man)