In Kenya in September al-Shabaab militants shot people who were daring to go shopping. Apparently they particularly targeted people they thought were not Muslims (in Somalia itself they don’t have such scruples). It may have been a coincidence that around that time two Somali friends of mine were targeted by white English men, or maybe some strange mental pathway from that atrocity led these men to feel justified in what they did.
The first targeting happened to Hani, who is sixteen years old. She’s at school, and has a part time weekend job in a shop. Hani wears a hijab. She is outgoing, hardworking, friendly, and hardly ever thinks about racism. Obviously she knows it exists, but it isn’t the first thing she thinks of when she isn’t happy with how people treat her.
Hate crime at lunch time
A couple of Sundays ago Hani went out for a stroll during her lunch break, and two middle-aged men she had never seen in her life came over and spat at her. As she wiped herself down. they laughed in her face, and walked away, still laughing. Hani went back into the shop for some TLC, which she got. Her colleagues listened, outraged, and the boss gave her an extra half hour lunch break. Later that day an old woman whom Hani had helped earlier in the week came in with a thank-you packet of chocolate biscuits. It helped, but the shock and outrage are still with her.
Spitting is categorised as an assault, as a hate crime, but it didn’t occur to anyone to tell the police.
“All you black people…”
Two days later something happened to Hani’s mother, Amina. She and her disabled sister Kadiija caught a bus to meet Kadiija’s brother in the centre of town. They had already done some shopping, so they had ‘change’ tickets which you can use on more than one bus, printed by the driver of the first bus you get on. Kadiija’s ticket passed without commentary, but Amina’s didn’t.
‘This is a forgery,’ the bus driver said. ‘You’ve photocopied this.’
‘No I haven’t. I paid for it this morning.’
‘I’m confiscating this ticket. You will have to get off the bus’, he shouted.
Amina and Kadiija are orthodox Muslims in their fifties. They were beautifully dressed in long colourful robes, with their heads covered but their faces open. For them, this form of dress meant they were respectable religious women. For the driver, it meant they were suspicious characters. Did he imagine they had portable photocopiers or even machine guns under their robes? He shouted at them for fifteen minutes, insisting he would keep the ticket and Amina must get off the bus.
‘Let’s get off’ Amina said to Kadiija. ‘This man is impossible. We will have to walk.’ But Kadiija was too exhausted after the walking she’d already done.
Their phones rang. Kadiija’s brother was wondering where they were. The other people on the bus were getting impatient, and kept calling to the driver to get moving, but none of them protested about the way he was shouting at the two women. It was a non-English person, a woman whom Amina thinks may have been South American, who came and remonstrated with the driver.
‘I will pay the £4 for this lady.’
Amina wasn’t having that. ‘Thank you, but I am not a thief. I have paid for my ticket. I have a job, I don’t need money, but I want my ticket back and I want the bus to leave.’
‘If you wanted the bus to go you shouldn’t have forged your ticket!’
‘I think you must be a racist’, Amina eventually said. The sexism went unmentioned.
‘All you black people say that. It’s your excuse for everything,’ he yelled at her, though what this ‘everything’ was remained a puzzle.
‘What other explanation can there be?’
Eventually Amina and Kadiija got off and walked. Kadiija just had to get more exhausted. Amina felt she had been publicly humiliated. When she and her daughter went to the bus station to complain, there was no one in the office of First who would take any responsibility for discussing the incident. They pushed a small form into their hands. On the website there were no phone numbers under ‘Contact Us’ or ‘Customer Service’. Just another small form.
Amina and her family don’t often meet this sort of racism. Maybe the events in Kenya have stirred it up. People in this country seem to think Somalis are economic migrants. Most people don’t realise Britain used to rule North Somalia, and not in order to benefit its people. Now that the civil war has died down, Somalis sometimes return to their country on holiday, to visit relatives – often elderly siblings or parents – or to see whether their property is still standing or has been squatted, whether their farms are still viable. This risky attachment to their country makes English people think it is safe to go back. It isn’t – a neighbour of Amina’s was shot dead just the other day on such a ‘holiday’. Most of the Somali community in Britain are refugees from al-Shabaab, but they are seen as terrorists themselves.
What other explanations could there be?