An architectural manifestation of Bentham's panopticon model. But do we feel 'being watched' equally?

The start of Freshers’ week is always a daunting experience for all new incomers, but for those from marginalised groups, the manifestation of that apprehension is perhaps a little too real. Looking around and seeing all the fresh new faces brings out a particularly sensitive side of me, and I can’t help but feel a sense of my own Freshers’ anxiety two years ago. Fast forward to now, some level of self-awareness and confidence have managed to filter out the most damaging aspects of ‘imposter syndrome’ that dominated my experience of Cambridge as a Muslim, ‘hijabi,’ ‘brown’ fresher. It has allowed me to write a piece like this and dissect exactly what it was, what it is, that continuously propels the Muslim woman’s identity towards scrutiny. From being completely overlooked in countless popular narratives, to simultaneously living under the spotlight, the Muslim body is constantly on the cusp of invisibility and hypervisibility in a way that constitutes an insidious and primarily dangerous fixation on our lives.

“To be Muslim is to be watched but rarely seen”

Universally, to be Muslim is to be watched but rarely seen. Islam continues to be the poster-child of terrorism, with any act of aggression on a widespread scale bringing Islam into the conversation- regardless of relevance. After the horrific Las Vegas attack, numerous news outlets scrambled to report on any supposed link between the ‘white’ shooter and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ despite the lack of evidence, feeding Islamophobic narratives with lazy, dangerous journalism. This reporting puts Muslim bodies on the line, time and time again. To be Muslim, then, is not only to be denied grief and the luxury of feeling emotions publicly, but to be hypervisible for the bad and almost always invisible for everything in between. This does not stop at global terror attacks. As a somewhat selective Sociology enthusiast, I like to think of it in terms of Foucault’s popular concept of ‘bio-power.’ Bio-power reflects the way in which the state controls and regulates its population to increase its surveillance over its constituents as much as possible, having equal power over our bodies. But what Foucault fails to realise is the nuances of surveillance in its unrepresentative entirety. Surveillance is something we’re all subject to, but particular groups in society continue to be hyper-visible to surveillance practices, such as the lower-class and marginalised groups: in particular, the demonisation of Islam. From equating Islam with any terrorist activity, to the increased surveillance of Muslim school children under counter extremism strategies such as ‘Prevent,’ racialised stereotypes of Islam create an obsession with a particular kind of Muslim body. This leaves us perpetually vulnerable to public scrutiny and widespread Islamophobia.

“I’ve had more than my fair share is racial slurs, terror and being spat at on the street”

But what does this institutional system of hyper-visibility mean on a day to day basis? No Muslim is alien to the more violent side of Islamophobia, by any means. I’ve had more than my fair share of racial slurs, terror and being spat at on the street, but sometimes, particularly in a place like Cambridge, less tangible forms of Islamophobia are far more common and much more covert. Coming from a background where violent racism and Islamophobia were more familiar to me than subtle microaggressions, this was somewhat a relief, but the indirect bothering of those who are visibly Muslim from social spaces is all too commonplace in Cambridge. It sits uncomfortably in your gut for longer than a punch to the stomach. Freshers’ week for me was just that. It was a chaotic and disorientating lesson on these more socially jarring microaggressions- from being nervously treated like an intruder in spaces where any sort of ‘fun’ was to be had (note: this almost always included the presence of alcohol), to being confused for any other person wearing a hijab regardless of resemblance, to the intense awareness of how uncomfortable people felt in my presence- being visibly recognised as Muslim was socially exhausting. The hypervisibility of the Muslim body as unfeeling, dangerous and essentially paradoxical to ‘the West,’ then, creates a specific form of invisibility which makes just being more complicated and demanding than it should be.

So, when Muslim freshers ask me what it’s like to be Muslim in Cambridge, I don’t really know what to tell them. Being Muslim is not a homogenous identity and neither are our experiences. For me, being visibly Muslim in a predominantly ‘white’ space presented difficulties which might be heightened or insignificant for others. The difficulty lies primarily in holding an ‘identity’ which is often presupposed for you, from stereotypes within the media to so-called ‘progressive’ spaces further policing Muslim bodies and how they should be presented. The limited scope of (hyper)invisibility that I’ve chosen to share is by no means a comprehensive discussion of Muslim identity but rather represents just one way in which I perceive Muslim identity for myself. Problematic nuances outside of and within the Muslim community itself, such as the marginalisation of Black Muslims and anti-Black sentiment being just one of a few things worth more dialogue and space to be explored. The bottom line is that actual Muslim people, particularly women, are rarely given the platform to speak on their own terms and explore their identities without responding to already entrenched critiques of every aspect of who they are. This is something that we need to condemn and actively work towards changing