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Muslim Women On How Their Lives Changed Forever After 9/11

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Muslim Women On How Their Lives Changed Forever After 9/11

Can you remember what you were doing on September 11th 2001? Perhaps you were in school, learning about the horrific attacks from teachers, or maybe you saw the devastating footage play out on the news.

As the world learned that terrorists had flown planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon - as well as crashing a flight in Pennsylvania - many millennials will remember 9/11 as the first time they became aware of the nature of a terrorist attack; the confusing reality that a group of individuals could inflict fear, horror and devastation to others on purpose.

The attacks killed almost 3,000 people in a matter of minutes, but for Muslims in the western world the resulting discrimination and prejudice have raged on for 20 years.

Saturday is the 20th anniversary of 9/11 (Credit: Shutterstock)
Saturday is the 20th anniversary of 9/11 (Credit: Shutterstock)
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In the months that followed, Islamophobia across the globe soared. Reports revealed in the week after 9/11, three people were killed in the US in Islamophobic attacks, the killers citing 'revenge' as their motive.

In figures compiled by the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped from 28 to 481 between the year 2000 and 2001 - and two decades on, it hasn't ceased.

A survey from four years ago found three quarters of Muslim Americans reported increased levels of discrimination, while nearly half said they had experienced discrimination in the last year.

New Yorker Ansa Khan was just 10 years old at the time of 9/11, and lived 10 blocks away from the towers.

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Speaking to Tyla, Ansa, 29, explains how the attacks shaped not only her life, but her relationship with her religion as a Muslim, and her identity.

"On the morning of 9/11 I remember everyone being picked up from school. When I watched the footage of the planes hitting the towers and collapsing, I wondered whether I would ever be able to go outside again," Ansa says.

"I vividly remember the whole borough being full of smoke. It lingered for days. Sometimes when I smell smoke now it immediately triggers the memory of that week - this is what the city smelt like at the time of 9/11.

"Reports soon started circulating that it was a terror attack, which also led to a sudden realisation that our identity was tied to this.

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Ansa was just 10 years old at the time of 9/11, and lived 10 blocks away from the towers (Credit: Ansa Khan)
Ansa was just 10 years old at the time of 9/11, and lived 10 blocks away from the towers (Credit: Ansa Khan)

"We went back to school and people's attitudes changed immediately; they started saying that I was from Afghanistan and I was a Muslim. As a 10-year-old, I had no idea what they were talking about - my family are from Pakistan and I was born and raised in Manhattan.

"I was also the only Pakistani and Muslim in my class so I definitely stood out.

"I experienced bullying and name calling. Outside of school and there was a real sense of fear within the community; attacks and hate crimes started immediately and we became hyper aware of our identity.

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"My mum would start picking us up and dropping us off at school and we were given cell phones. Both my partner and my brother experienced moments where they were called out for 'being a terrorist' in class by teachers. It felt like it was our script."

Ansa explains that throughout high school and college, the discrimination continued.

"Even now I still get stopped at airports," she says. "When I was in college at Spring Break, I went to visit Pakistan. I was interrogated by authorities and asked about why I went. We were just living our lives, but they needed my grandma’s information and names of everywhere I stayed.

Ansa explains how the attacks shaped her life (Credit: Shutterstock)
Ansa explains how the attacks shaped her life (Credit: Shutterstock)
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"The impact it had on me meant I wasn’t able to thoroughly explore my religion in college. I remember telling my parents I was going to start wearing the head scarf - I thought, 9/11 was in fourth grade, I was in college now, it was something I wanted to do.

"I tried it for a year before taking it off. It was too overwhelming to live with these two identities and my parents were concerned, they said 'please take it off, you’re already a girl in this society and now we have to worry about you wearing a head scarf, you’ll be discriminated against'.

"I still haven’t put it back on. When the time came for me to explore my religion, 9/11 would always be painted as the backdrop."

Ansa explains she experiences less discrimination now, largely down to her appearance and because she rarely speaks about her religion.

"Even now I never speak about the topic because there is trauma associated with it. I don’t discuss religion, physically I took the hijab off but intellectually I just do not open that side of me. I’m trying to find a healthy balance where I can talk about these issues constructively. There’s so much more to me."

Despite the attacks taking place thousands of miles away, the discrimination echoed across the globe. Londoner Belle Michelle was also 10 years old at the time of 9/11. She tells Tyla how at sixth form, she would often fall victim to racial discrimination.

Belle experienced discrimination at sixth form (Credit: Belle Michelle)
Belle experienced discrimination at sixth form (Credit: Belle Michelle)

"Not long after 9/11, during Eid, there was a definite shift," she recalls. "Usually in east London people would see you and think 'oh wow look at the dresses they're so beautiful', but [after 9/11] things were different.

"We started to drive more, we changed our mosque. Sometimes, when we were walking in our traditional attire, people would look and move away from you. There were things that weren’t happening before."

Belle continued: "I always say there’s being Muslim and then there’s being Black and being Muslim which is a completely different experience.

"My primary school was quite multicultural, so I didn’t find a lot of prejudice there. For me, it was more when I actually got to sixth form.

"Around that time, my parents decided to move outside of London, and it was like a 360. The ignorance was crazy. Whenever the 9/11 anniversary came around, I found some of my teachers would make ignorant comments. I don’t wear a hijab but there were often comments around that - for example, that women who wear hijabs don’t have rights or that they’re 'kept women'.

Belle said comments would always increase around the times of the anniversary (Credit: Belle Michelle)
Belle said comments would always increase around the times of the anniversary (Credit: Belle Michelle)

"Another time, one teacher made a comment to me about arranged marriages and how it’s common in some religions. I told her it wasn't common in religions, but common in cultures. There’s a big difference between Islam and culture - I’m Muslim and it’s not common in my culture.

"Comments like that would always increase around the times of the anniversary of 9/11, unfortunately the discussion would always crop up again."

If you have been affected by islamophobia, you can find help, support and advice at Mend.

Featured Image Credit: Ansa Khan/Belle Michelle

Topics: Life, Real Life

Lucy Devine
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