Shaima Alawadi, a mother of five and an Iraqi immigrant living in El Cajon, California, was found dead in her dining room two weeks ago, with a note next to her that said “This is my country. Go back to yours, terrorist.” The killer has not yet been caught, and police have been hesitant to declare it a hate crime on the chance that the note is a decoy for another motive. The incident has rattled many in her immigrant community, especially many women who wear headscarves, as Shaima did. A New York Times article on the crime said the family was used to occasional acts of discrimination in the years since 9/11.
Just as Trayvon Martin’s hoodie has become a symbol of the unjust racial stereotyping that his killer used to justify murder, many women have focused on the hijab as a symbol of the racism and Islamophobia that could have led to Shaima’s murder. On the Facebook page “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” echoing the One Million Hoodie March for Trayvon Martin, women of many faiths show solidarity with Shaima, posting photos of themselves in hijabs. Many women plan to wear them in their communities to spark discussion.
It’s interesting to see the hijab, which in American discourse is usually used as a tool of othering, a symbol of the supposed oppression of Muslim women, becoming a symbol of solidarity. It’s the complete opposite of what we usually hear about the hijab – that it’s wrong, backwards, women shouldn’t wear it, etc. – discourse that often operates as thinly-veiled racism expressing Western cultural superiority. Instead, white, non-Muslim women wearing hijabs in solidarity sends the message that, just as with Trayvon’s hoodie, imposing racist preconceptions on someone based on clothing is wrong. It never justifies violence, without question.
It is heartening to see so many people taking action and showing solidarity. I was actually surprised to see so much discussion on “hoodies and hijabs.” The photos above, showing a woman in a hijab with a sign saying she wants justice for Trayvon, and a little black girl with a sign saying she wants justice for Shaima, along with several “hijab and hoodie” rallies at universities across the country, are addressing the common forms and structures racism takes, regardless of the target.
In an article in AltMuslimah, Kareem Venable write that he sees an absence of Muslim support for Trayvon and it troubles him that more Muslim communities are not organizing to express solidarity and call for justice. He takes it as an indication of racism towards African-American Muslims within the American Muslim community. I don’t know much about the internal dynamics of Muslim communities in the US, but I do take it as an indication that there is ample ground for coalition building between Muslim communities and African American communities (which often intersect) to address common issues of profiling, police suspicion, and discrimination.
I’m inspired to see these two awful tragedies lay the groundwork for solidarity, but it won’t be enough to end discrimination and let people of color feel safe in their communities unless mainstream white communities tackle the racism that enabled these crimes. The murders of Trayvon and Shaima should be a wake-up call to our country to take a good look at ourselves and assess the views we hold that enable such horrific crimes. An important difference between Trayvon’s murder and Shaima’s is that George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s killer, tried to justify the murder with claims of self-defense that go against any form of logic, dancing around what is obvious: the crime was a hate crime. In Shaima’s case, the note her killer left by her body made no effort to hide the purported motive behind it: hatred.
The difference is significant to me: today, we do not acknowledge out loud that racism against black people still exists in America today. Instead, racism takes subtle forms under the surface, forms that twist back around to attempt to justify Trayvon’s murder as his own fault. Hatred against Arabs and Muslims, on the other hand, does not have to be hidden under subtle implications. The recent revelation that the NYPD has been targeting Muslims for extensive surveillance, for which even Mayor Bloomberg was unapologetic, shows how much blatant racism operates against Arabs even in law enforcement. The idea that racism against Arabs and Muslims is wrong has not yet taken hold in our moral and historical consciousness. To a certain degree, the idea that Arabs are all terrorists and pose a danger to our country is acceptable to express.
One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi and the One Million Hoodie March for Trayvon Martin is a good step. Hopefully this will energize community organizing to secure law enforcement reform, change people’s attitudes, and bring the subtle dynamics of racism in 2012 into our conversations.