On Dec. 16, 2014, armed gunmen stormed a school in the
northern city of Peshawar in Pakistan and massacred 150 students and teachers
in the name of Islam. I sat clutching my
nephew, who looked so much like the children who were being killed, too shocked
to even cry.
The magnitude of this senseless brutality was so great that
Muslim and Pakistani students across the world felt its effects. In the United
States, vigils and public gatherings were held to honor the dead and to show
support for the survivors. With the help of the Muslim Student Advisor at
Swarthmore, Aneesa Andrabi, a moment of silence was organized for the community
with the goal of creating a safe space to mourn. At the event, students, faculty and staff were all in attendance in response to a campus-wide email.
In contrast, my friends and I at the Claremont Colleges felt
completely alone in grieving and processing these events. Forget hosting a
vigil of this sort; we were not even contacted by the Dean of Students or the
Office of Chaplains, and the only email I received from any figure of authority was
one from my academic advisor. Following an event that was equally traumatic, Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, the deans sent an email titled “Community Spaces and Events for Processing Ferguson,” and I wondered
why a similar action was not taken following Peshawar.
I understand and know that being a minority comes at a cost.
I don’t want to employ the “privilege” language to this particular issue in
fear of polarizing groups who need to be most engaged in this discourse. But it
deeply perturbs me that as a religious community, our struggle goes largely
unacknowledged at the Claremont Colleges. I feel invisible.
In response, I created an online Facebook event—“Mindfulness for the Peshawar
Massacre”—just so the gravity of the situation and how it affected students
like me would register in our shared consciousness. It should not have been my responsibility to instruct the
majority, the mainstream, the center to be sensitive to my pain. It was, and
remains, the colleges’ job.
I was made to feel irrelevant when I wrote to Pomona College Facilities and Campus
Services about the difficulty of finding food options at the 5Cs that comply
with Islamic food standards. Without so much as an acknowledgement of my request for “respect for the
everyday choices we [Muslims] make in upholding our faith and beliefs,” I was referred to the on-campus nutritionist.
For the first time since coming to college, I felt the true
weight of being a minority student. It seemed as though my individual experience or that
of my religious community was not worthy of recognition. What
about the equal access to opportunities, resources and support that my Title IX rights are supposed to guarantee?
More recently, Feb. 16, three Muslim students at
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill were shot dead by an Islamophobic neighbor. Once again, I
was baffled and appalled by the silence of the consortium, even when this heinous
crime was committed at an institution of higher education similar to ours.
While it is not easy to know the exact names or numbers of Muslims here, that in itself is telling. We are far too scared to even list our religion on official forms in fear of being marginalized and targeted, and that
makes the need to address and inform the entire community, not just a sub-sect,
even more pertinent.
And why shouldn’t we be scared? The fact that post-9/11 the
colleges did nothing to support their Muslim students has been an active choice that alienated an entire section
of the student population. Jahan
Boulden PZ ’07, who currently serves as the Assistant Director for Parent and
Alumni Engagement at Pomona, said with respect to some comments on the TSL website, “The fact that it’s so broadly accepted that Muslims are evil, makes it so hard
for people to see/hear these kinds of things as being bigoted. Why is it always
freedom of speech when people are calling Muslims evil? While it’s
ignorant/racist/oppressive when it’s another group? This is the same kind of
mentality that started the Holocaust, and we’re allowing a platform for it on
Let me be clear: This is not a debate about which group
on campus is most oppressed or in need of support, a pitch for a Muslim
chaplain at the 5Cs or a demand for increased representation in our faculty. This
is my justified demand for organized support from the consortium to a religious community that is faced with terror within and disproportionate xenophobia from the outside world.
I’ll never look at the Pitzer Fountains in the same way. Not after
sitting there for an hour with a group of students who had assembled on their own initiative to remember the UNC victims, creating a space to share their sentiments. The stories I heard left me feeling
both angry and sad. Never had I felt so disempowered and
disenfranchised as I did that night.
Have the consortium and its community
not failed us when scarf-clad students fear going to the library at night, scared of being attacked? Or when Muslim students who have had their car tires
slashed refuse to report it to Campus Safety because they are convinced their
complaint will be pushed under the rug? What action or inaction has made them
feel this way? How utterly unsuccessful have the 5Cs been in earning our trust?
As we observed a moment of silence, I could hear the
soothing sound of sprinklers in the distance over the EDM playing at a party
nearby and the halting grind of wheels against the gravel paths, and I kept
thinking about why we sat unspeaking. We, who already feel stifled by the
silence. Is self-imposed quietude merely an opportunity to breathe between our
sobs, to let the oxygen sooth our burning lungs and convulsing ribs, fortifying
our voices so that they do not quiver when we finally speak up again?
Why is the only
discourse surrounding Muslims and Islam focused entirely on ISIS and other
violent sects within an overwhelmingly peaceful community? Conversations surrounding identities such as gender, sexuality and
race are sacred in Claremont. Why isn’t religion the same?
I went out in the streets to protest Darren Wilson’s non-indictment
ruling last semester because I believe every human
life matters regardless of race and ethnicity. But I have begun to wonder how
many people that do not identify as Muslim would raise their voice for my
community of faith, demanding justice if I was subject to a hate crime
tomorrow. Most of all, I am beginning to question why I have
had no institutional support in my time of distress and need.
I am livid right now, but the silence surrounding my experience and its systematic
invalidation have made me feel like I should not say it. My
college is no longer a safe space for me. I don’t want to be labeled as just
another irate Muslim or a potential ISIS-bride, but it’s funny that I feel that
way, surrounded by so many intelligent, socially cognizant individuals. Our educational community should see the struggle I undergo every day, the challenge of trying to
annex my faith both from the terrorists and from misrepresentations in the Western media.
refuse to be made to feel like an angry little brown girl. I refuse to be the
poster child for diversity at the Claremont Colleges until the marginalization
I am subject to is recognized and remedied.
Aiman Chaudhary is a politics major and a
sophomore at Pomona College.
This article was updated Mar. 2 to clarify a quote from Jahan Boulden PZ ’07.