As I am writing this, I am still not sure if this post will actually get published. Because it doesn’t exactly present me in the best light, and especially in the light in which I want to see myself.


A couple of hours ago I was standing on the metro platform, reading a book while waiting for the train to arrive, when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye: a woman taking a video of the  station with her iPhone.  Just yesterday I wrote about the hard time I was given by a metro cop for taking photos in the Metro; however, while photography is allowed, video is not.

Metro map detail: no booze, no smoking, no  video.

Metro map detail: no booze, no smoking, no soliciting, no video.

Now, I am no stranger to minor breaches of rules and regulations, such as jaywalking or taking pix of the Uffizi ceiling frescoes (definitely NOT allowed), and don’t begrudge anyone else the same acts of rebellion.  But something didn’t sit right with me. Several somethings, in fact.

There was nothing happening in the station, and the station itself is not particularly remarkable. The woman was taking the video of just the pavilion, the passageway, then moving on the the platform itself. She continued to shoot as the train approached, then — as this point I could see her screen — zoomed in on a half-empty car. She did not get on.

She was wearing a hijab.

The station.

The station.

I have already briefly touched on the history of terrorist attacks in the Moscow Metro: 7 bombings since 1996, with the most recent one in 2010. Most of them were carried out by suicide bombers, with radical Islamist groups (usually tied to separatist movements in Dagestan or Chechnya) claiming responsibility. The most recent attack was executed by two female suicide bombers.

So when I saw a dark-haired woman in a black headscarf and a black floor-length skirt underneath her parka making a detailed — and illegal — video documentation of a near-empty, ordinary metro station and train late at night, my insides chilled.


I hate, hate, HATE being this person — one who profiles others based on the color of their hair, skin, facial features, on what they are wearing or the religion behind it. I rail against homophobia and racism on a regular basis, in my home and at work, regardless of whether I’m preaching to the converted or it’s falling on deaf ears. My Jewish father wears a beard and could pass for Osama bin Laden’s better-fed brother. I, a Slav-Scandinavian-Jewish mix who identifies as Russian-American, have been told by several people that I “sometimes look Jewish” — and in some places around the world that’s just as bad as wearing a headscarf.

Well, bully for me. There was no way in hell I was getting on the train that the woman just video’d — and skipped. I kept watching her. I contemplated going to get one of the police officers patrolling the station. I didn’t — in no small part because I did not want to be THAT person, but also because I did not want to let her out of my sight. And because I was scared, even though I was not sure of what. Then I started to feel a different kind of fear. What if I don’t do anything? What if she is going to be responsible for the next attack? What if I am the one responsible for allowing it to happen?

I’m not sure where this train of thought would have ended up; a few more seconds of this suffocating anxiety and I probably would have gone to fetch a guard, but lo and behold, there he was, approaching the woman, politely asking her for her documents — and her phone.

I got on the next train and exhaled.


39 thoughts on “A DANGEROUS SUBJECT

  1. I guess sometimes you’re glad of the dodgy police officers! It sounded like a bit of a hairy situation to be honest. And of course nobody likes to admit that they judge on appearances/stereotypes but I don’t think I would have got on that train either. Better safe than sorry!

    • Well, they’re not all dodge – the dodgy ones just give all of them a bad name. I actually feel safer with teams of OMON walking around. Btw, I have a feeling that another passenger might have tipped off the police – the woman was making a lot of people uncomfortable. And I comfort myself by saying, it wasnt just ‘the look,’ it was her actions.

      • after all of the terrorist attacks u should just have gone there and told the police officer on her. sorry but thats more then realistic. a few months ago a group of russian tourists got kicked out of a plane for speaking russian. just like that for no reason. they werent even loud. they missed their flight and got no compensations. and all of after the boston bombers. who are chechen by ethnicity were raised in turkmenistan and america have us citizenship and are called nothing but russian terrorists. just like that. when real chechen terrorits were bombing russia in the 90 s they were secured and supported by usa and in uk they were called rebellions. now after the boston aattacks they are called russian terrorists. u gotta love the western logic. a lot of normal russian students and workers are now denied usa visa because of this and nobody in the us goverment is afraid to be THAT person when judging russians. even in the computer games we are portaited as terrorists. yet god forbid to say smth bad about a person with a hidjab or a person of color. if i were u id simply go to the police officer straight away. btw here s a sweet example of americans generalising about russians – again and again:

        btw if someone says u look jewish thats is not an offence. it is just a fact. maybe after learning about ur heritage they try to see whether or not u look the part. im mixed german and russian and i look like the most typical slavic woman in the world yet i constantly get called “non russian” and “too european” because im not dark enough. allthough u could pass of as any given nationality from swedish to italian=)) there s nothing wrong with being any nationality whatsoever. but we all get stereotyped. im dead sure had a blond and blue eyed russian bloke videotaped nyc metro while speaking russian he would have been taken to the police station in no time. although i may be wrong of course

        • I know that ‘looking Jewish’ is ‘just a fact’ in most places now, but that wouldnt have been the case in Germany 70 years ago, or in parts of the Middle East/south Asia now, or hell, even among certain groups in Russia where anti-semitism runs very strong. So being profiled based on appearance IS problematic in general – which is why it’s such an uncomfortable line to walk between prejudice and security.

          • ppl of certain nationalities do not stir any emotions in me. but when someone acts funny in the subway like what u described it would trigger survival instinct in me, whether he/she be black or white or whatever. i guess its just the constant warning that u hear in the trains and trams – if a passenger is acting suspiciously or leaving stuff in public transport, report to the driver. i guess i just have it drummed into me. if i were u i would simply be afraid NOT to act but then to each his own.

  2. I understand your dilemma. But sometimes, actually, I’m a firm believer, of following your gut/intuition. If these thoughts are not common for you, and you had this feeling, then maybe you weren’t wrong. I’m glad the officer came by.

  3. Ooh yeah, that’s a tough one. I think based on everything about the situation though… I’d have to agree that suspicion was warranted. You don’t want to be “discriminatory” but at the same time… bleah! So glad things were sorted out though by proper authorities at the end of the day.

  4. Totally tough situation. I can just imagine the angst I would have felt. One side of me telling me not to stereotype, and another side telling me I have to act, lest I end up doing nothing and regretting it.
    I’m glad the situation resolved itself. That would have been a horrible position to be in.

  5. I think most of us reading your post would have felt exactly the same as you did. Like you say, you were judging her actions, more than her appearance and if she was making others uncomfortable too, then it was definitely a bit dodgy.

    • Well, this happened literally 14 hrs ago and I couldn’t exactly stick around and eaves-drop, so no idea. But they probably took her to a metro police station (I think all or most metro stops have them, and they are glass-walled, literally for transparency’s sake) and ran her docs, and definitely got rid of the video, at least.

  6. Interesting thoughts in this. I can’t say that I would feel the same way as you would have since I kind of missed out on the whole “turr-ism” bit, not being from a large city. But I have felt this way in similar situations, so I can empathize with your gut feeling vs. not wanting to be “that” person. I don’t think there are any easy answers to this question.

  7. The bombings seem far more linked to Chechnya than Islam, from what I’ve read. If she shouted something like “Yay Chechnya!” that would be much more compelling evidence than wearing a hijab.

    It’s sad that Moscow has to infringe on freedoms to protect itself. Perhaps one day nobody will have to sacrifice anything to be guaranteed safety. Cue “Imagine” by John Lennon.

    • Well, when most of the conservative Muslims in Russia come from the Caucasus region, and when the separatist movements there (and most attacks carried out by them) are spearheaded by religious extremists, it’s hard to break those mental connections. Thus the moral dilemma.

    • Also, it’s the illegal video-taping of the station and the train that really unnerved me. I see hijab-clad women on the train with me almost every day, it never gave me pause before.

  8. Wow, a really powerfully written piece. I’m glad everything turned out okay. This is a very dangerous subject, you’re right, but I think you were right to be suspicious.

    I just found this report from the U.S. Counterterrorism Center (http://www.fas.org/irp/threat/nctc2011.pdf) and SEVENTY PERCENT of terrorism-linked fatalities in 2011 were traced to Sunni extremist groups. It’s not like linking terrorism to Islam is a wildly incorrect assumption. Furthermore, it’s not like her hijab was the single (or even the main) reason you found her suspicious.

    Bottom line for me is, while her hijab should not be the single reason you find her suspicious, your discomfort with being “one of those people” also shouldn’t give a suspicious person a free pass just because you don’t want to look prejudiced.

    Thanks for writing so honestly about this internal dilemma, I can definitely see myself in the way you reacted.

    • Thank you, this really is a rather difficult topic. I guess I still dont want to make assumptions about someone’s risk potential based on them belonging to a 1.5-billion people religious group of which a teeny tiny fraction is a minority, so I will just have to be generally paranoid and have my Sherlock hat on looking for other signs.

  9. There is no way I’m going to this train station. I probably won’t use this line as well for the nearest 3 months. I remember the sound of burst (I mean “vzryv”) of the civilian building at Pechatniki in the middle of the night some time in 1999. I pass daily a memorial sign on Avtozavodskaya train station and read names of victims and pray for them, while taking an elevator.
    See, I joined the US job force in March of 2001 and managed to get my first job in the US in the South tower… I was already on the Brooklyn bridge when the building collapsed and I’m the one, who laid face down on the bridge as soon as I saw military planes, which flew so close to us. My friend, a NJ maffiozzi daughter was very embarrassed of me;) (I could have already written about it, sorry for being redundant.)

    That’s a very powerful writing, thanks.

    • Thank you. It’s true, your whole perception and reactions change when you’ve gone through something personally (I’ve mentioned a couple of my things upthread). But it sucks to live with that anxiety and suspiciousness nevertheless.

  10. I would have done the same thing, and, though I understand your feelings, I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself. Because you weren’t just judging her on her appearance/religion, but by an illegal action that aroused your suspicion. I know it’s a dicey line to call sometimes, but I think that being better safe than sorry was reasonable in the circumstances. If you didn’t get on a train because there was a Muslim also getting on wearing a backpack, that would be different, but this wasn’t ‘existing while Muslim’, this was ‘doing something illegal and out of the ordinary’ – I would have certainly been uncertain of a white person doing the same thing.

    • This is probably the closest to my interpretation of the situation. But also, if I saw a ‘regular white’ person videotaping a station, I probably would assume he’s just working on an indie documentary or something. That’s the personally problematic part. I know I reacted as strongly as I did bc of a hijab.

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