Bullies at school started calling me "Bin Laden" or "terrorist" and they didn’t limit their attacks to just verbal abuse. Sometimes I was left to go home to my parents with my physical injuries clearly visible. On a few occasions, the attacks got really bad and I ended up in hospital. I kept thinking that if I ignored the taunts, they would go away but that didn’t happen.
The impact has stayed with me - to this day, if I experience abuse, my initial reaction is “What did I do to deserve this? What have I done? I must be at fault.”
By the time I reached secondary school, aged 11, I’d developed an eating disorder. I still struggle with depression and other mental health issues today. The bullying made going to school a nightmare. I struggled to make friends and kept quiet in classes. I was too scared to offer an opinion on anything.
Back then, all I wanted was to be seen as "British" and to be treated like all the other non-Muslim kids in my class. But I was denied that. I was told time and time again that I “wasn’t British”, that I was a “terrorist" and worse. That, somehow, I was to blame for the actions of murderous extremists who claimed to share my religion.
Going away to uni in Nottingham was a huge culture shock for me, having grown up in a predominantly Asian community in east London. I’m often the only Muslim and/or the only Asian in class. At home, the sight of a Muslim wearing a hijab is much more common. At uni, I’ve met people from rural areas who have only ever seen hijab-wearers on the TV or in the newspapers.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that yes, I wear the hijab out of choice. And no, I’m not oppressed. I’ve been lucky enough not to be attacked on campus for wearing it, but I do know girls who’ve had theirs pulled off.
When I first started at uni, I wanted to begin a new chapter in my life away from the bullies and taunts. And to feel free of the fear of being different. So for a few years, I wore my hijab more like a turban, to make it less obvious and to look more like a fashion accessory.
At first I was worried I might not cope so far from home and that the same feelings of not being safe or belonging would resurface. Thankfully, I’ve developed a strong support and friendship network now. I also spent six months studying abroad in Malaysia, an experience I might have been terrified of when I was younger.
Today, I feel more confident in myself and have found my voice through student politics. I still struggle with my mental health and the scars of the trauma I experienced at such a young age will never leave me.
I have recently returned to wearing my hijab the traditional way, like I did when I was at school. For me, it’s reclaiming a symbol of my identity as a Muslim and these days I wear it with pride. Even in the face of hate.