Nabra Hassanen’s murder doesn’t come out of nowhere; it is embedded into the structure of American society
The Virginia police ruled out the incident as ‘road rage’. However, it’s incredibly difficult to believe any instance of road rage involves the premeditated forethought of kidnapping a girl, dragging her into a car, and covering up the evidence by submerging what’s left of her into a body of water.
The murder sparked a fresh wave of fear for Muslims in America, who have lived in terror of hate crimes since 9/11. Muslims now struggle with the possibility of being shot cold in the doorways of their homes by a neighbour they’ve shared a parking lot with for the past two years, which is what happened with the 2015 murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
America is supposed to offer the promise of safety, security, and success for Muslims who leave their homelands in search of a better and more liveable future. But the recent spike in hate crimes and tragedies like Hassanen’s murder have cast the American dream for Muslims in irrevocable doubt. Like Hassanen’s death, once lost, it’s almost impossible to believe in again and retrieve.
Hassanen was born to Nubian-Egyptian immigrants in the US, thus she was a natural citizen. She was American in that she was born in and lived in America her whole life, and knew life in this country best.
But Hassanen was caramel-skinned and wore the hijab. She was the daughter of immigrants. She was a practicing Muslim and an unapologetic member of her community, a dated photo on Facebook showing her holding a placard against Donald Trump’s deportations.
At the end of the day, her belonging in the US didn’t protect her from the rage of a 22-year-old man. Ironically, he is an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant himself, who brutally tortured her before killing her and who the police say may have raped her before she died.
Hassanen’s murder was oddly, almost chillingly, specific. She was only 17-years-old, a child, a young girl with a future to experience and enjoy. She was at the cusp of her life, when high school students get ready to graduate and start applying to universities. But more than anything else, she was innocent.
In her smiling face, Muslims around the US saw the faces of their sisters, daughters, and friends. They saw the purity and innocence of a young girl who had her entire life ahead of her. Hassanen’s life was snatched from her before she ever had the chance to really live it.
But Hassanen’s murder doesn’t come out of nowhere; it is embedded into the structure and fabric of American society. The rage and premeditated cruelty that killed her wasn’t random, but targeted against women and girls who fall outside the fold of whiteness and fail to adhere to the gendered stereotypes that uphold American patriarchy.
The hyper visibility of girls and women like Hassanen who wear the hijab render them targets to masculine violence. Thus, it constructs a violent and patriarchal American identity on the disempowerment of women challenging the social order. Whether a woman who puts on a headscarf before she leaves the house believes it’s a political act or not, the religious act has been politicised in a country that waged war against Afghanistan and Iraq on images of veiled, oppressed Muslim women.
But the war on Muslim women in America is even more directly militarised than just political gendered images perpetuated by the media. Until 2012, Navy SEALs used images of hijab-clad Muslim women for target practice.
The hijab then becomes more than an act of religious worship, a form of lehaaz (etiquette) or an aesthetic assertion of identity. It becomes a racial marker for people who are ‘other’, and who implicitly challenge America and western imperialism by the virtue of their existence. Moreover, it becomes a marker for how they choose to practice their lives, and through this, they are categorised by those that fall outside the implicit rules of what’s acceptable in America and what’s not.
But Hassanen did not become ‘other’ by only wearing the hijab. She was a black Egyptian girl, the daughter of immigrants and a practicing Muslim. In a country with severe anxiety about race, and a tenuous relationship with its centuries-old black population, Hassanen tended towards the opposite side of the black-white binary.
While she was not African American, the pathological fear and hatred for blackness in America informs almost all racial encounters and relationships, laying the blueprint for a skin colour-based racism (as opposed to ethnic racism). African Muslim immigrants find themselves caught in the midst of an anti-black racialised Islamophobia, sometimes even experiencing erasure or exclusion perpetrated by their non-black Arab and South Asian Muslim peers.
At the end of the day, Hassanen’s sole crime was her innocence, her youth and the fact that she dared to express who she was without any shame or apology. There are no words which can bring her back, or can invoke martyrdom to make peace with her death. She is yet another soul of this generation buried in the earth before she could change the world we live in for the better. We will mourn and remember her, and we will work to make sure this never, ever happens again.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.