Photo: Flickr / RubyGoes

A Muslim name

For those of you who don’t know me (not that you should), my name is Sadia Hameed. I am an atheist and a self-declared anti-theist.

Lying was a part of my everyday life. It was my safeguarding strategy. Lying to parents about going to college, so I could sit and get wasted with friends, or canoodle with the latest dish of the month. Lying to any brown person that might report back to my family. ‘My name is Anita. My family are Indian or Sikh.’ To me all brown people were spies for my family. They still are in fact!

For safety, I stuck with my story whenever I met a brown person: ‘My name is Anita, and my family are from India.’ This method only works when nobody knows your name and face. In my home town, most people knew my face, my name and my family. The best method of safeguarding myself was just to hide every time I saw a brown person, either by jumping behind one of my friends or by pulling my hood low over my face. I didn’t give myself the time to figure out if they knew me or not. I would assume the worst and hide.

A few years ago, I went to university and created an independent life for myself – away from my family and the community that I grew up among. Life got just a little bit easier. I still felt extreme anxiety whenever I saw a brown person, but the brown people of my university town weren’t familiar with my face or my family, so my alter ego Anita could thrive in her new found freedom.  I have lived with my alias for nearly ten years. I even use her for my online dating profile. I only disclosed my name to my fiancé on our first date.

Like I said, the Anita strategy only works if the brown person I am meeting doesn’t know my name, so after nearly ten years of an effective strategy, I found myself in a situation where I had to rethink everything, in quick time.

I was due fly out to Sweden for a conference on honour crimes. I had to be at the airport for 5am, so I had called a taxi to pick me up from my home at 3:30am. I had booked the service online, effectively giving some stranger my full address and name. This stranger turned out to be a male Muslim taxi driver, who at 3:30 am didn’t have the decency to let me sleep on route to the airport.

No, he had seen I have a Muslim name and he had an hour and a half of journey to get as much information about me as possible. I was really hoping to jump into the taxi and sleep all the way to the airport! I have to say, at 3:30am I really wasn’t feeling too sharp but the questions started thick and fast, ‘You’re Muslim isn’t it?’

‘No. I am not.’

He looks at me in his rear view mirror, ‘Your name is a Muslim name.’

Of course my usual strategy would not work in this situation. Not only that but it’s 3:30am and I have not had much sleep. I am struggling to think fast. I am thinking of my grandmother’s stories of everyone living together happily in pre-partition India. ‘My grandparents used to live next door to a Muslim family before the partition and they liked the name,’ I told him. Still unsatisfied, he asked me where in India. I don’t know about you, but lying off the cuff is hard for me. I had become accustomed to my pre-prepared alias. ‘Amritsar,’ I said quickly.

He then continued for an hour and fifteen minutes to ask me every personal question that you could think of. How many siblings I have, was I married, do I have children, am I educated, what I do for a living, who are my family, where are my family from, are my family nearby, etc. etc. Of course I didn’t tell him what I do for a living. I am pretty sure we would have had a mysterious car crash if I told him that I was a spokesperson for the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain.

Having to think fast again for one morning made me feel so angry for the women and girls that are still having to live like this, just so that they have the chance to live how they want to, so that they can make their own choices. I am aware that I have a privileged life compared to many Muslim and ex-Muslim girls living under the watchful eyes of their families and communities. This just made me more acutely aware of it.

To those women and girls that are living with this kind of surveillance and who feel hopeless, I want to tell you that there are ways out, and that there is hope. It is definitely not an easy journey out. I am not going to lie to you about that. It will be a turbulent, traumatising and seriously bumpy road out. Once you are out, the likelihood is that you will experience some kind of mental health issue, because living in such a high pressure environment is likely to cause mental health issues, but ultimately, it is absolutely worth it.