This post was written by Guest contributor Seema Shafei (@seemashafei).
I’ll never forget the time a classmate turned to me and said that we couldn’t elect Obama because his middle name was Hussein. You never know, she told me. He could be just like Saddam. If a name could elicit this much fear, a language could start a war.
Language is a weapon as much as it is a comfort. It can connect ideas of home to a community, keeping culture alive. Speaking a language marked as ‘other’ can unite people with similar backgrounds. It can be used as a tool for the marginalized to maintain their sense of identity amidst an atmosphere of hostility. Language is powerful, and that is why it is so often the first target to attack throughout history when trying to erase a people.
Recently, a woman was brutally beaten for speaking Swahili in a restaurant in Minnesota. Asma Jama was told repeatedly to ‘go home’ by a couple, to which Jama reportedly responded, “I am home. I can speak English, but we choose to speak whatever language we want.” In the end, she suffered enough injury to require seventeen stitches. A beer mug was smashed against her face. Through the gashes and lacerations, Jama insisted on her freedom to speak her mother tongue.
Minnesota is home for Jama, and yet it has made her a victim. The woman who assaulted Jama was arrested, but incidents such as this one will not stop. Hate crimes have increased towards Muslims within the past decade, to a point that left Jama stating that she felt as if she could not leave her house unaccompanied anymore.
Asma Jama suffered a hate crime. The couple abused her when she dared to speak. Her physical appearance as an ethnically Somali Muslim woman who wore the hijab had already distinguished her, but her language marked the tipping point. Regardless of the fact that she spoke English, and was actually fluent in three languages total, Jama was confronted with people who tried to put her in a place of subjugation.
To speak multiple languages can be a political act, especially to speak languages that have been marked inferior to English. Language demarcates you as different, and forces others within the vicinity to notice that very difference. However, sometimes the pressure of politicizing language can be heavy.
It should not be too much to ask to be able to speak freely in a family restaurant without assault, no matter the language used. Is freedom of speech only upheld if that speech is in English? It should be extended to all multiplicities of tongues, and all people who hold onto their language. Its power is one that cannot be ignored.
The perpetrator of the hate crime was charged with third-degree assault, which I believe does not in anyway reflect just how harmful the attack was. To be beaten for speaking a foreign language, to have to get seventeen stitches, to be hatefully and publically humiliated for being considered ‘other,’ were all the reality of Asma Jama. The lax charge translates to a lack of taking the crime seriously within the court system, showing the world that attacking a Black Muslim woman is the legislative equivalent to a simple misdemeanour.
We have seen a slew of Muslim women bearing the brunt of racist attacks recently, especially after the Paris attacks. Often, for Muslim women who cover, their hyper-visibility puts them in a vulnerable position because of the Islamophobia that is on the rise. We have to take Islamophobia seriously and protect the Muslim women and men who have been targeted constantly for their identity. From being pushed in front of trains, to being verbally abused, to being attacked for speaking Swahili, Muslim hate crimes show up everyday on the news. Instead of normalizing these violent acts, we must recognize their severity and their damaging effect on the Muslim community as a whole.