Trayvon Martin & Shaima Alawadi: hat crime becomes hate crime

And privilege gets privacy.


People interested in social justice will have no doubt noticed two stories in the world media recently, both coming from the US: the Florida shooting of young African American, Trayvon Martin, and the savage beating of a muslim woman in California, Shaima Alawadi, that caused her death.

In the case of Trayvon Martyn, a neighbourhood-watch-style security patroller shot him dead, saying he thought was some kind of dangerous gang figure because he was wearing his hoodie with the hood up at the time. The police had refused to charge the shooter, even though just before the incident they had previously ordered him to not follow Trayvon. The issue became a runaway social media meme and sparked protests across the nation, including demonstrations in the Senate and in cities around the country, at which everyone wore hoodies to show solidarity and to mock the absurdity of judging a person dangerous and shooting him based on his clothes in combination with his race. Make no mistake, this national protest was organic, organised and sincere. It was called the Million Hoodie March.

In a very different part of the country, Shaima Alawadi, a 30-something mother of five, was beaten to death in her own home, with the perpetrators leaving a note to confirm the reason was her culture. A friend of the family told journalists the note said: “Go back to your own country. You are a terrorist”. Shaim wore a hijab, like the women in the photo to the left. She was found by her 17-year-old daughter. There is a Facebook group called “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi” (with 8,600 members and counting) – members wear a headscarf and post a picture to the group to draw attention to hate crimes. There are many photos of women from other cultures and religions wearing the hijab in protest.

One really interesting feature that the two victims have in common was their wearing of a garment designed to cover their heads and partly obscure their faces. Neither was wearing a pair of cut-off pantyhose, balaclava or motorcycle helmet, which are the traditionally alarming headgear that bank clerks fear (nor burka, not that it should matter). Should someone wish to speak to Trayvon’s or Shaima’s face, all they had to do was to stand face-to-face with them, as in any respectful, everyday exchange between human beings.

It speaks volumes that we automatically think a hood or a veil is hiding a threat rather than  being a garment of privacy. When muslim women who wear a hijab or a burka say they are being modest, I sense that many people equate that to being prudish and think of it as hiding something vaguely insincere. Modesty in the mainstream white Christian culture is the same thing as ‘humility’. But for many people (including many white Christians, I am sure), modesty means ‘good secret’ or ‘privateness’.

Secondly, it also looks as though we as a society think some types of people are entitled to privacy and some types of people are not. This may mirror our beliefs about whom is entitled to be protected by law enforcement agencies – the middle-class army does not just distinguish between classes, but based all kinds of other features such as race and gender, which is the fuel behind the Million Hoodie March and the Million Hijab campaign. Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin, thought he was entitled to follow Trayvon and snoop into where he was going, and that the racist neighbours of Shaima Alawadi thought it was okay to leave the nasty, racist notes at her home.

It’s not just the presumption of who gets to be the victim and perpetrator of violence, and who gets arrested and charged, it’s also what rights we believe others have to keep their own faces kind of private.

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