It has been 135 days since June 24th. I don’t actually keep a running tally – these days you can just Google these things – but I think about this a lot because I’m trying to make sense of the world in the days following June 24th, 2016. Especially on the verge of yet another momentous date – November 9th 2016: which, in non-American date parlance, may signal another ominous date-cronym.
Or not, we shall see, as Americans decide the fate of the free world.
Ok, I concede, a bit dramatic. But I’d be the world’s most oblivious if I dare not admit that things have changed since the UK EU Referendum: not necessarily in the mood of the towns and cities (that changed long before Britain went to the ballot boxes) but more lastingly, inside of me and in my psyche.
The day after the EU referendum, when the facts (and levels of disbelief) were beginning to sink in, we had an Open Day on campus: a day when potential applicants would visit the university, ask questions and be wowed (or un-wowed) by what Birmingham had to offer. Throughout the morning, while doing my time manning the Accounting and Finance stand, emails and texts were trickling in about what to say if we were asked about fees for EU students, or where the university stood when it came to matters referendum.
Funnily enough, no one actually brought it up in the two hours I was there; and it wasn’t until I was at the train station, heading towards Birmingham International to pick up Ili, that I was approached by someone who seemed so jubilant about the result she missed my slumped shoulders and look of utter dejection as I sat on Platform 1.
“Isn’t it brilliant?” she enthused. “A new dawn for us all!”
I smiled politely, very conscious of both the suit and the hijab I was wearing. “It’s early days but things will change,” I responded cautiously.
“Yes, yes, but what a start to the weekend, eh?” she nudged me with a knowing wink. These are the benefits of living north of Watford: God forbid getting into a conversation with strangers down south, save for Jehovah’s Witnesses wanting to save my wanton soul.
“Certainly a bright one ahead,” I replied, referring to the unrelentless sunshine beating on my poor, fasting head; yet happy for her to misconstrue the meaning. I am nothing if not non-confrontational. Inside my heart was as broken as the future of multicultural Britain. Sort of.
“Oooh yes, indeed!” she laughed and smiled. The train arrived slowly into the station. “You have a good one, luv,” her parting words as we got into the carriage.
And probably, that was as pleasant as it got that first weekend after the results. Over the next few days, news filtered through of increases in racist attacks, demonstrations by far-right / far-right leaning groups, the shoving of racial abuse down postboxes, mouthy children telling their non-British schoolmates to ‘Go Home’. It was ugly, and it was not the Britain of my childhood even having grown up in the depths of Thatcherism.
Of course, as Muslims, we were used to – even sadly almost auto-immune – such vitriol every time some idiot somewhere decided to commit an act of terror while not being white. But this time, it wasn’t just Muslims, or non-whites, who were targets. It was everyone who weren’t ethnically English or British.
In the 100-odd days that have since ensued, some of the racism has died down; but the bitter aftertaste is evident everywhere: from the areas you avoid after dark to the policies the government are putting up.
One thing that really affected me was that I really felt scared of wearing the hijab when on public transport, especially buses and trains. I have been through this before, post 9-11 and 7-7, where people would stop talking as I walked by in the streets, but I have never felt physically threatened before, not deep down in my heart of hearts.
I do, now.
I walk past groups of people – regardless of race – and I feel scared. I stand way back on train platforms, for fear of being pushed onto the tracks by someone because of nothing more than being non-white. I wear headphones and blast it with loud music whenever I am on the bus: not because I want to be left alone but because I don’t want to hear things. And sadly for me, unless I am in a safe space, such as at work, or with a large group of friends I trust, I wear a modified headscarf that makes it less obvious I am covering my hair. It depresses me.
The other thing that I have noticed, internally, is that I now view the England and the British flag with different eyes now. Whenever I see the England flag – a red cross on a white background – now I automatically associate it with racist Brexiters gloating about their ‘win’ on June 24th.
Once a symbol of footballing pride, I now see it as a marker of something to avoid. This is ironic, of course, because as an ardent England fan, many a World Cup or Euro I have draped the very same flag on my balcony, championing good sporting spirit during the games. (How ardent an England fan am I? I am known to have gone to work at the NST on the day after David Beckham’s petulant kick in the World Cup in 1998 wearing my England jersey).
It’s no longer a symbol of football for me. It’s turned into a symbol of hate: a symbol of people who do not want me here, regardless of the amount of tax I pay into the kitty every month willingly to support the very dole some of these people pick up weekly. And that to me is beyond sad. Sadder than the state of the England football team, which says a lot these days.