By Shayna Plaut, Human Rights Contributing Editor
Six summers ago, I made a new friend. She was 7 years old. I was a guest at what I assumed would be a stodgy and staid academic picnic, when the unmistakable sound of a child’s glee made me stop in my tracks. I looked over to see who was laughing with such genuine abandon. A little girl was literally in the air, being swung around by her arms. I knew I needed to meet this little person, as well as the big person who had raised such a live and open spirit.
Much has happened over the years. The little person has become a budding feminist, journalist and singer and will be starting high school next year. Her mom, now one of my closest friends, got remarried a few years back to a man she knew in university. She and her daughter joined her new husband in New York City where she is finishing up her third graduate degree. Having lived in three continents and run numerous education programs overseas, it is no surprise that her focus is on critical interventions into international education.
Then President Trump took office, and one week later, he issued the executive order prohibiting the travel of people from seven Muslim countries.
— Slate (@Slate) January 30, 2017
A day after the order was signed I called my friend to see how she was doing and how the ban was affecting her and her family. “It is hard,” she shared as they were driving to mosque. “My husband and I were talking about it this morning and we made the decision to not travel outside the country for the next four years.” I was on speakerphone and I heard my young friend from the backseat, “What? Why?!”
This is one of the consequences of the #MuslimBan, having to explain the reality of racism to the next generation. Having to explain that equality never did in fact, exist, and that things just got worse.
“One of the reasons that I moved to the US was because my daughter does not have rights in Pakistan where we are from,” my friend explained to me. “She did not have rights as a female and she would have to live with the stigma of being a daughter of a divorcee. I moved so she would not have to live with stigma. And now it is here again. Now I have to have a conversation with my 13-year-old who, although she knows her roots and religion and culture, has always truly believed she is equal.” She paused. “But right now, in this environment, she needs to know she will not be treated equally. She is brown and Muslim and that is not a safe thing to be right now.”
“We have to keep a low profile now.”
Of course, this is not new. For centuries, the parents of children of color have had to train their sons and daughters in the everyday consequences of racism. But still, some immigrants, especially those who emigrated to the US with resources, held onto a belief that life in America really is a blind meritocracy. This is especially true for those who came from the middle and upper-middle classes in their country of origin. The shock of legalized, racist, hierarchy, has been unsettling. My friend expressed a deep feeling of betrayal. “I have spent the past six years building up my education and professional identity in international education,” she said, “and suddenly I can’t even do my job because of my religion and country of origin?”
Many historians and commentators have pointed out that bans on travel and racist immigration policies are not new, but those experiencing the chilling effects of the #MuslimBan state that things feel very different this time around. My friend’s husband, also a Pakistani national, was in New York City during 9/11, and while he certainly experienced racism in the workplace as well as on the street, the vitriol and pervasiveness seem even greater now. “It is not that it didn’t happen before but now the racism has been OK’d from the top. It is like a blanket immunity,” my friend told me. “Of course, there were racism and Islamophobia during 9/11 and before but it was not outwardly condoned. Now it is. It is legal now and this makes us all very scared.”
— Muja Zaib Khalid (@zaibkallu) January 29, 2017
The Power of Fear
There is another layer to the story. My friend’s green card is up for renewal in the summer. A woman who has broken so many societal norms through divorce, single motherhood and anti-colonial educational practice is suddenly finding the need to remain low-key to try to secure the future for her and her family.
“I feel particularly vulnerable and exposed. It leaves me in an insecure position. I started to distrust my own neighbors and as we’ve seen all over the world, once you start losing trust in your neighbors, everything goes to hell,” she said. “Ask any immigrant or brown person, the fear of the immigration official, of possible deportation, is always there but right now, I am even more paranoid and I know this is a problem. What do I do with it? The only thing is to have a backup plan.”
In the aftermath of the executive order, she is now questioning her decision to attend the women’s march on inauguration weekend. “I went to the women’s march with my daughter before we knew the ban was coming. We registered. But maybe we should not have done that. What list are we on now?” My heart sank when my friend told me that the next time her daughter wanted to go to a protest, she would have to explain that it is a bad idea, that the possibility of being rounded up presented a new threat.
She finds hope in the protests taking place around the country. She was overwhelmed by the ACLU and the lawyers and the judges working 24-7 in the airports, streets and courts “I am heartened by the people standing up for those of us who can’t right now,” she said. “Please don’t stop.”
In the name of safety and security, my friend, the mother of a girl whose laughter captured me so many years ago, now feels compelled to teach her daughter how to live with fear. This means teaching her daughter to blend in and “not draw attention to yourself,” she said. “As soon as you have on a shalwar kameez and get on the subway you are not low profile, not even in New York City as cosmopolitan as it is.”
Silence is a consequence. Teaching our young people to be quiet and to keep a low profile is not OK. We cannot ever let this become normal.
Listen to Shayna Plaut discuss the #MuslimBan on the CBC radio show “On The Coast”