I will never forget how I found out about the terror attacks in Christchurch on Friday 15 March 2019. I just walked out of a two-hour meeting at work, deep in thought about the advice I had to prepare in the next 30 minutes and I noticed that no one was at their desks. People were fixed to the TV screen in the work kitchen. It was approximately 4PM.
I listened, still confused. I asked the person next to me what was going on? I remember her saying, “There were shots at the mosque they are saying nine dead but probably more, maybe hundreds.” I was horrified but it didn’t occur to me that it could have happened in New Zealand. I asked more questions and then finally, “Where did it happen?” “Christchurch.”
The earth seemed to move under my feet. Hundreds of people contacted members of our organisation, the Khadija Leadership Network, asking what they could do to support Muslims, what they could do to show their rejection of the hate and violence that had just been perpetrated against Muslims in New Zealand. We became a bridge for communities and individuals raw from grief. It was only natural for us to put together a vigil in Auckland to help people start the healing process.
We have never really been a part of New Zealand...never embraced, never included, never accepted.
I am sad that this happened but I am equally angry that little had been done to address the issues leading up to this event. As Muslims we have been told our anger is dangerous, our anger is unacceptable. Time and again we are told that we have no right to express our emotions. At the vigil in Auckland on Saturday I expressed my anger and I said that I will not apologise for it. How dare anyone ask me to apologise; to cower; to limit my expression of emotions. For so long we have been told to be quiet, to be invisible, to know our place and apologise for our very existence. To be grateful that we were allowed to be a part of a utopian paradise. But let’s not fool ourselves. We have never really been a part of New Zealand. We have merely been allowed to exist—never embraced, never included, never accepted. Muslims have been in New Zealand since the 1800s but we are still treated as outsiders.
After the events of 9/11 our family home in Mt Roskill was vandalised, my mother and I had eggs thrown at us, and people would constantly yell at us from their cars as they drove past. “Go home,” they said. They accused us of being “Osama lovers” and terrorists. Over the years the New Zealand Muslim community, along with Muslims all over the world, became the demonised other. Attacks on women wearing the hijab grew, Muslim women received death threats and hate mail, protest against “Sharia law” abounded, and there was growing sentiment that Muslims weren’t Kiwis, that we weren’t welcome and were threatening to take over New Zealand. We were supposedly going to be the reason New Zealand would no longer be a utopia.
Little was done to change this narrative. Instead we followed our “friends” the USA, UK and Australia and changed our legislation and policies. Muslims swiftly came under surveillance and were branded a threat. Family and friends were targeted, interrogated and coaxed to become informants. Muslims were aggressively pursued and were asked if we hated New Zealand, accused of harbouring ill intent and planning an attack on our soil. Naturally, our community shrunk back in fear and confusion. At no point did I hear anyone acknowledge that Muslims, in fact, were the victims of extremist ideology.
Women in particular became targets of religious hatred due to our visible signs of faith. We also bore the brunt of patriarchy as our community, whitewashed to follow entrenched views on gender inequality, comfortably relegated women to the side. The patriarchy hurts everyone but people of colour the most. The decision makers and leaders everywhere we looked—within and outside our community—were men who never acknowledged or even tried to understand our concerns. Women were only allowed tightly controlled advancement. Ironically, Islam has countless fierce female leaders and Khadija (RA) was one of those women—the wife of the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) she was a successful female business owner who was 20 years older than the Prophet and was key in spreading the word of Islam.
Our mosques quickly became targets, assumed to be hotbeds of illegal and extremist thought and behaviour. We saw a global rise of white supremacy and open hostility towards Muslims. There is no doubt that a normalised fear and suspicion of Muslims in New Zealand exists. So why are we so surprised that this attack happened and that mosques were targeted?
We knew this day was coming and we were frantically asking people to listen.
The Khadija Leadership Network held a conference last year in October because we saw these signs. The things that had occurred overseas were occurring here too. The frustration during that conference was palpable. We knew this day was coming and we were frantically asking people to listen. We were dismissed and told very firmly that Muslims shouldn’t be talking about these things. These things do not happen in New Zealand and our sort should not rock the boat. And how dare women not only involve themselves but actually lead in these spaces? So instead we just braced ourselves and furiously prayed that an attack on Muslims would not happen here.
But it did. The physical manifestation of that hate came for us. It came for us in such a big way that the entire world is horrified.
And even though this unimaginable, heinous thing happened to us we still carry on in our ways. There are so many voices crowding the discourse, throwing opinions around and puzzling on solutions but no one bothers to look around and notice that a segment of society in missing. A key segment. The ones directly impacted by the horror. We are once again marginalised and made invisible even when we are so visible. Once again we are talked about when we should be the ones being listened to.
Muslim women need to lead conversations and actions across the country.
It’s time for new voices at the table. It is time for women to be leading conversations. It is time to listen to the voices that make you uncomfortable. Voices that express anger. Voices that call for the country to engage in difficult dialogue. Voices that will no longer accept the status quo. It is time for New Zealand to acknowledge Islamophobia is rife in New Zealand and that our current discourse on racism and it’s watered-down corporate cousin, ‘diversity and inclusion’, falls woefully short. Muslim women need to lead conversations and actions across the country, and even more so when it comes to our own community.
Pakeeza Rasheed is chairperson of the Khadija Leadership Network.