An Auckland Muslim woman has described how her world has changed since the Christchurch terror attacks, which have helped unite the country and counter racial hatred.
Fijian-born mother-of-three Neelufah Hannif was once called a “curry muncher” and for years felt too uncomfortable to wear her hijab to work.
But the 40-year-old public servant has sensed a shift in attitudes towards inclusiveness and racial harmony since an extremist gunman killed 50 Muslim worshippers in two mosque attacks on March 15.
A day after the attacks, Hannif sat at a cafe with her daughter and her friend when she noticed a man with ginger hair staring at her.
“I saw him looking at me, he didn’t smile or anything.
“I didn’t know what he was thinking but it did make me think should I be here with my daughter because I don’t know what people are thinking and whether they are looking at me differently. I was rattled.”
This week the Herald walked behind Hannif as she went to a mosque to pray for the first time since the massacre.
As she walked past an armed police officer she was welcomed with smiles, nods and hugs from strangers.
Hannif wants the alleged gunman to know his actions have failed to achieve what he set out to do.
“He has brought everyone together, to say what he did was wrong and there is no place for it,” she said.
“I think the last few days have shown that people are compassionate, they’ve shown empathy and they have grieved with the Muslim community. I think this is who we are, this is who we have always been and I hope this will continue.”
The horrific terrorist attacks have drawn global condemnation but praise for the way New Zealand has united to support Kiwi Muslims.
Thousands marched through Auckland yesterday in opposition to racial hatred, and thousands more poured into Christchurch’s Hagley Park for a vigil to honour the dead.
Hannif is private about where she lives and works but open about her Islamic faith and the faith she has in New Zealanders.
“The incident in Christchurch made me think about where I live and what can happen in a safe, beautiful, diverse country. It was devastating that someone thought ill of our brothers and sisters to hurt them in a place of prayer.”
But she said she also had been impressed by the response of many caring Kiwis.
“New Zealanders have shown solidarity and it’s comforting to know we are ‘one’ and people are there for us,” she said.
She believes Muslims have been “demonised” post the September 11 attacks by Islamic terrorist group Al Qaeda – and now there needs to be more awareness of right-wing extremists, including in New Zealand.
“There is a lot of Islamophobia throughout the world,” she said.
“I think any concerns that have been raised about these extremists in New Zealand haven’t been taken seriously. I think our security services need to do a better job so this doesn’t happen again.”
Hannif was born in Fiji but immigrated to this country aged 9 with her parents and siblings.
At the time she and her sister were the only Indian Muslims at their school in Pakuranga.
Her first experience of being singled out was when a boy called her a “curry muncher”- a racial slur she’d never heard before. She said she was a “rebellious” teenager who tried to “fit in” with her Kiwi friends.
“I wanted to do what everybody else was doing. Parties, skipping school, that sort of thing.”
But In her 20s, Hannif embraced her identity and the importance of her Islamic faith. Five years ago she plucked up the courage to wear her hijab (head scarf) to work for the first time.
“I decided I’m not going to hide my identity anymore, this is who I am,” she said.
“I felt strongly about my religion for a long time but I was trying to be part of society to be normal. I didn’t know how others would react and I didn’t know if I was ready for the reactions at work but when I wore the hijab everyone asked me why I didn’t do it earlier. It was a big step but it made me feel free to be me.”
The mother-of three is a proud Kiwi who celebrates New Zealand’s cultural diversity.
“I don’t eat or cook Indian food much – we go to my mum’s for that. McDonald’s, KFC and pizza are out because they contain ingredients that are cooked in animal fat – not Halal. We love roasts, pasta and Shepherd’s pie” .
In May, Hannif and her family will take part in Ramadan.
“We fast from sunrise to sunset, you don’t eat or drink unless you are unwell. Children start fasting at puberty. There is no sex while you are fasting, you have to stay pure.”
Hannif competes in karate tournaments and loves to swim in the sea in her burkini (like a wetsuit) and hijab. She has hair cut and styled regularly in a space away from other customers.
“A lot of people don’t think we have hair underneath,” she said.
“But we can colour and curl. It’s not for everyone to see, it’s for our husbands.”
• The events in Christchurch are distressing. If you, or someone you know, needs mental wellbeing support or advice then call or text 1737 anytime. There is advice on coping after a traumatic event here https://www.health.govt.nz/node/9714 It includes information for parents for children.