OXFORD, England — One of the many issues that have been raised here in the aftermath of the Brexit vote revolves around identity. What does it mean to be British, to look British, to sound British?
I was born and raised here. I live here. I’m unquestionably British. I’ve been told that when I speak, I sound like Harry Potter, which is appropriate because I am very much a fearless Gryffindor.
When people look at me, they assume I’m an immigrant or a refugee. Often in restaurants or at the theater, I am talked at, not to. Waiters and ticket takers try not to look at me, they ignore me, and then I speak and I see confusion kick in as they try to figure out who I am.
The only time people don’t ignore a hijab-wearing woman is when they hate you or they suspect you of being a terrorist.
In the past 18 months I’ve called the police a number of times after being racially harassed and physically threatened by strangers. And when I travel on my British passport, I am always asked: “Where are you from?” “Um, Britain,” I respond. “Are you Muslim?” “Uh, yes, I am.”
It’s odd that people are always trying to figure out who I am because I have no doubts myself. And wearing my hijab has given me even more self-confidence.
This week, the European Union’s highest court ruled that employers can ban employees from wearing overt religious symbols, including Muslim headscarves. If there is one positive outcome of Brexit — and there are not many given the rise in bigotry I’ve seen and the increase in reported hate crimes — it’s that we don’t have to follow the ban. When questioned about whether Britain will adopt a similar rule, Prime Minister Theresa May reiterated her support for the right of women to dress how they chose.
In trying to figure out how Britain is different from Europe, I concede that Europe has gone down the rabbit hole, pushing identity politics onto Muslim women by obsessing over our wardrobes.
Two years ago while I was working in France on a BBC TV documentary about what it means to be young, French and Muslim after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, I walked into the reception area of the French Parliament to interview Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a member of Parliament and the niece of the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is now seeking to become France’s next president.
The receptionist looked horrified when she realized that I was the British journalist who had scheduled an appointment with Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.
“You cannot enter this building wearing that thing,” she said, pointing to my hijab. “It is not allowed.” She was referring to French legislation banning conspicuous religious symbols from public buildings.
“But I’m not French. I’m British,” I said. “I’m as British as fish and chips.”
She paused and then responded, “O.K., you can proceed.”
Everywhere I went that day, I was asked where I was from by taxi drivers and shopkeepers. I figured my British accent gave me away. But it was a French Muslim woman who pointed out what was my real otherness.
I asked her whether it was obvious that I wasn’t French.
“Yes,” she responded. “We can tell you are not French. You wear a hijab, you walk with confidence. You are not apologetic.”