ELMWOOD PARK, N.J. — A Ford-150 pickup truck was driving so close to Arwa Omar’s car that she couldn’t see its front grill in her rearview mirror. The 24-year-old administrator was on her way to work in New Brunswick, heading south on the New Jersey Turnpike from her home in Clifton early one Friday morning.
Even though Omar was traveling at 60 mph, the pickup driver kept speeding up and flashing his high beams. Aggressive driver, Omar thought, as she moved into the right lane to get out of his way. She was used to it. After all, New Jersey drivers don’t have a bad reputation for nothing.
But the truck didn’t pass her. Instead, the Ford sped up alongside her. Suddenly the driver, a youngish white man with blond hair and a scruffy beard, began screaming at her.
“At first, I thought maybe he was in a hurry, but he kept driving at my same pace to scream at me,” Omar said. “It was freezing out, but he kept his windows rolled down, just screaming.”
Omar was sitting in her friend’s driveway earlier this summer, here in this commuter town northwest of New York City, as she recalled the story of what happened on that January morning over two years ago.
Terrified, she slowed down and moved directly behind him to avoid his verbal attacks and erratic driving. But it didn’t matter. The driver kept slamming on his brakes, picking up the pace and then slamming on his brakes over and over.
Although Omar couldn’t hear what he was shouting, she knew what it was about. In her gut, she said, she knew he was attacking her for her hijab.
“’He was probably calling me a terrorist or something,” Omar told HuffPost. “I just knew.”
Easy Prey On The Highway
Omar is one of many hijab-wearing Muslim drivers who face hate at the wheel. Sometimes it’s racial abuse hurled through an open window, other times it’s a terrifying encounter at 60 miles an hour. No one knows how often it happens. The various types of road rage are not tracked by any federal agency, but among Muslim women, it is felt particularly hard, especially for those wearing the hijab, an easy target for an Islamophobe driving by.
HuffPost spoke to 30 female hijab-wearing Muslim drivers who were the target of Islamophobic road rage, some as a result of tips that were submitted to HuffPost’s Documenting Hate project, a database that tracks incidents of hate and bias.
The interviews uncovered a disturbing theme. While each encounter was unique, each woman reacted similarly. They assumed they were at fault — maybe they were driving too slow or forgot to signal that they were changing lanes, many told HuffPost. But when the confrontation persisted, the women faced racial slurs or were told to simply “go back to their country.” They were called “rag heads” or “terrorists.” One woman in Texas told HuffPost that the driver who almost ran her off the road stuck his right arm out the window in a Nazi salute. Others were flipped off while the perpetrators pointed at their hijabs.
Muslim women who wear the hijab are easily identifiable targets, putting them at higher risk for hate crimes. In recent years, Muslim women have been verbally harassed, beaten and even pushed in front of oncoming trains. Just last year, 17-year-old American Muslim Nabra Hassensen was raped and killed on her way back to the mosque during Ramadan in what police say was an act of road rage. Her parents believe it was a hate crime.
The incidents that occur on the road happen fast, often times too fast for these women to call the police or catch a glimpse of the license plate. Many women interviewed said it happens so regularly — sometimes on a weekly basis — that they don’t see a point in reporting it at all. They have no concrete evidence, they said.
Half of fatal crashes that involved more than one driver were caused by road rage, according to data collected by the American Automobile Association in 2014, the most recent data available. AAA does not track what motivated the road rage.
One of the reasons the data is meager is because road rage “is not something that there’s standardized reporting for. It’s not easy to identify,” AAA researcher Lindsay Arnold told HuffPost. “The limitation of data to access the size of the problem makes its difficult to implement improvements to address the problem.” A cursory look at the data shows an uptick in incidents, she added.
Driving While Black And Muslim
One fall afternoon, Sarah Sakinah Abdullah, a 26-year-old public health associate, was running an errand at the post office in Latta, a small town in northeastern South Carolina. She was visiting her mother, having driven down from Maryland for the weekend.
Abdullah was getting into her car when she heard a woman from a nearby van yell over, “you bitch.” She ignored it, not thinking it was directed at her. But as she pulled her car out of the parking lot, windows rolled down, she heard the woman’s voice again.
“I hope you have a stroke and die,” Abdullah heard the woman say.
Abdullah looked up and saw a white woman sitting in a red van staring directly at her. Shocked, Abdullah and her mother said nothing, but as the van pulled away Abdullah noticed a “Make America Great Again” bumper sticker.
“I was like, oh, well everything makes sense now,” Abdullah told HuffPost. “It was just really out of the blue to say an insult not just once, but twice. The woman definitely made it a point to look outside her window, look me in the eye and make that statement. With that type of venom and passion in her voice, that hatred, I really do believe that there was motive behind it.”
The experience shocked Abdullah. She thought she knew this small town well. Abdullah attended high school in Latta, where she said everyone treated her with respect and Southern charm.
“I knew I got that response based on the way I looked and based on my faith. And to add insult to injury, also my skin color,” Abdullah told HuffPost. Abdullah is African American, which means her skin color is another factor as to why she was targeted on the road.
But Abdullah said most of South Carolina is not as open-minded as her hometown. She maps out her trips to and from Maryland meticulously. She sticks to her mother’s advice and only drives during the day.
“It’s not fun when a drive that’s only five hours away needs to become a planning mission,” Abdullah said. ”Usually you think a fear would be, oh, I hope I don’t run out of gas because where’s the nearest gas station? But my fear is I hope I don’t encounter or drive through a town and people going, ‘Oh, look, there’s a black Muslim driving through town. Let’s give her trouble.’”
Abdullah’s concerns are ones echoed far and wide by the African-American community. The U.S. has witnessed over and over again the disturbing trend of African-American motorists being racially profiled, harassed and even killed on the road. Black drivers are not only pulled over by law enforcement at rates exceeding that of their white counterparts, but they are more likely to be ticketed and searched. The viral phrase “Driving While Black” captures the fears many African Americans like Abdullah face on the road. It’s a fear that adds more layers when it comes to the intersectionality of hate and driving.
“It’s exhausting to feel the need to continuously remind people that you’re human too,” Abdullah told HuffPost. “I don’t know what I’ll get attacked for today.”
Go Back To Your Country
It feels like Allison Miller has been driving practically her whole life. The 31-year-old Missouri mother of one was a police officer in Jackson for five years before she left the force in August 2016 to be a full-time stay-at-home parent. She began wearing the hijab when she converted to Islam back in 2015. Her driving world hasn’t been the same since.
Before leaving the force, Miller commuted two hours each way to her job at the Jackson police station. It was a warm September day in 2015 when Miller stopped at a red light. Her windows were down when she heard a male voice calling for her attention. She turned to look and saw a middle-aged white man in the car next to her, who also had his windows down. The man got even louder.
“Go back to your country!” he shouted at her, a phrase that is often hurled at people of color. It was the first time Miller had ever heard those words in her life.
“I was shocked,” Miller said. “I’m obviously a white person. It was in my ignorant time so I thought, why would he yell at another white person? It was so shocking to realize that this was motivated by hate.”
Despite driving for over 15 years without a problem, Miller, who’d only been wearing the hijab for three months at the time, had experienced her first anti-Muslim hate on the road. It wouldn’t be her last, either.
“I didn’t get to experience what others in my community were going through, until that moment. I thought, wow, this is really dominant,” Miller said.
Miller recalled to HuffPost five other incidents where she was targeted on the road because of her hijab, the latest incident occurring earlier this month. A second incident occurred in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election when then-candidate Donald Trump was campaigning in St. Louis. Miller was in her car driving home from Walmart when a pickup truck with five white men in their early 20s began harassing Miller, demanding her to leave “their country.” It was only when Miller pulled out her badge did the men quickly drive away.
Just last fall, Miller was exiting a supermarket parking lot, slowly driving by a construction site where a group of men in bright orange vests were at work.
“Are you one of those camel jockeys?” one of the workers asked Miller as she drove by. The others laughed in the background.
“Excuse me?” Miller responded. The man then repeated himself, slowly enunciating his words, assuming Miller didn’t understand English. The man continued to talk about the camels “back in her country.”
Miller shot back, challenging the men’s racist rhetoric. But the situation escalated and then another man called her a terrorist.
“Don’t be mad at me, honey. You could have had me, but you went with one of those dark men. That’s why you’re oppressed,” the man told her. “What’s underneath that, baby?”
Back at home, Miller told friends and family about her experiences on the road, hoping more women would also speak out against hate on the roads and even report it to police.
She was outraged, but now she’s grown immune.
The Impossibility Of Proof
Detective Nicholas Shock is the president of the New Jersey Police Traffic Officers Association and is a police officer with the crash investigation unit in Gloucester County in New Jersey, where he oversees the rising number of fatal motor vehicle accidents in the county.
Racially motivated road rage incidents are difficult to track in part due to the nature of the rapidly moving environments, Shock told HuffPost. Most drivers don’t call law enforcement after an incident. Even if a road rage encounter is brought to court, it can be impossible to prove without photos, video footage or witnesses.
New Jersey is one of the only states with an aggressive driving hotline. Drivers dial #77 to report non-emergency motor vehicle complaints such as distracted, aggressive or reckless driving. Since its inception, law enforcement has received a significant number of complaints in regards to road rage. However after an incident is reported, there are numerous barriers to actually proving a road rage disturbance occurred.
“There’s no real way through the court system to actually track what incidents are road rage and what aren’t,” Shock told HuffPost.
“There’s just no definition,” Shock said. Most court officials only see a violation for speeding, for example. There is no information about the driver chasing another car aggressively, or if the driver was alone. “There’s no way to capture that right now,” Shock added.
The Hijab Stays On
Despite the hurdles that allow for such hateful incidents to occur, Omar in New Jersey has no plans to stop driving. It’s an essential part of her life, she said, whether it’s commuting to work or cruising around in style.
Omar is a bit of a gearhead, and she’s into the style part of driving. When she first got her car, a maroon Honda Accord, in 2016, she even got her windows tinted because they looked cooler that way, she said.
But then, because heavily tinted front-side windows are illegal in New Jersey, she kept getting pulled over by the police. She had them removed. Then the incident with the man chasing her at 60 miles per hour happened. Omar says it was because the man could see her clearly through the windows. After that, she put the tinted windows back on, and would prefer to be pulled over by the police than increase her chances of more road rage.
She has no plans to alter her appearance. The hijab is staying on, she said, and so are the tints.
Last year, Omar upgraded her car to a sleek black 2017 Honda Sport, with a special addition. Framing her license plate in bright pink letters is an Islamic prayer asking God for safety and protection while traveling.
“My mom used to always make us say it as kids, especially during road trips,” she said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the location of Elmwood Park, New Jersey, in relation to New York City.
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