San Francisco – For Muslim and Sikh youth growing into adolescence in the past decade, 9/11 has either been a menacing specter or just a perceived threat. But either way, it hasn’t been easy.
Bullying driven by media stereotypes of Muslims and other foreigners as terrorists has invaded the lives of some public school students. But for those students who transferred from years of studies at an Islamic school, the problem has been less palpable.
Recently, at a hearing in Mountain View, Calif., Muslim and Sikh youth panelists testified about the religious and racially based harassment they had experienced in public schools since 9/11.
Navneet Singh, a 16-year-old Sikh boy who wears the traditional turban, spoke about the harassment he faced, ranging from questions like, “Is that a bomb on your head?” to being punched in the face in the 4th grade.
Ultimately, at his father’s urging he enrolled in mixed martial arts classes in middle school in order to gain confidence, and learned to stand up for himself.
Sarah O’Neal, a Muslim public school student, always considered herself to be a respected member of her community at her middle school in Sunnyvale, Calif. So when she discovered that someone had written “Sarah O’Neal is a terrorist” on the bathroom wall, she was left feeling marginalized, “I felt isolated because of my race, because of my hijab. Despite accomplishing so much, it didn’t matter because I was Muslim.”
Students Who Started Out in Islamic Schools
Alternatively, for Muslim students attending Islamic schools, elementary and middle school were safe havens. Because the students all shared the same religious beliefs, they did not face the same challenges to their faith.
Ben Kim, a former student at ILM Tree (Ilm being the Arabic word for knowledge), a K-8 Muslim home schooling cooperative in Lafayette, Calif., commented, “It was a very caring environment, very easy to worship your religion there.”
However, the homogeneity ultimately made students excited to move on to public school after the 8th grade. “I wanted to meet more people and have a bigger environment,” remarked Raeesa Ashique, another ILM Tree student.
Transferring from Islamic School to Public School
Once in the public school environment, the students became representatives of Islam to their classmates, a role they were well-prepared for by the Islamic institutions they had previously attended.
Halemah Shuman, who attended Granada Islamic School, a K-8 private school in Santa Clara, Calif. explained that Granada had specifically prepared her for the questions she gets asked now, “they had Islamic classes and sometimes they would teach you, if somebody asks you this, what would you say?”
Kim, despite not outwardly appearing Muslim (a half Korean half Caucasian convert) often finds himself taking on the role of Muslim ambassador, explaining his faith, “We had a football camp and I was rooming with my friend who is a devout Catholic. He would ask me about praying. They’re very curious.”
Though eager and ready for the change, the students did have concerns about what public school held in store for them.
“It was always in my head, 9/11. People have all these ideas about Muslims, what will they say?” Ashique wondered.
However, her fears were allayed when she made friends easily and found teachers and administrators to be welcoming, making accommodations for her to pray at school.
For Shuman the adjustment has been slightly more challenging.
During summer school she faced harassment from a classmate who asked her, referring to her hijab, “What’s that thing on your head?” and if she was related to any terrorists. Shuman chose to ignore the student and has tried not to let his taunting dampen her excitement for high school, finding a support network through her older sister who has been at the school for 2 years.
Kim summed up the comparison succinctly, “It was easier to be a Muslim [at ILM Tree] although, it’s not difficult where I am right now.”
Growing Up in High School
For Singh and O’Neal – students who had always attended public schools — high school has also been a welcome change and a respite from the harassment, as the students mature and the taunting subsides – but the effects of the bullying appear long-lasting.
Singh commented, “If I had to take on someone, I could, so I’m not afraid anymore.”
And for O’Neal, she has come to view the teasing as almost normal, a somewhat inescapable part of life.
When asked if she had considered approaching the administration when students make jokes like “Are your family members in the Taliban?” she commented, “I didn’t think I could go to the administration with something like that – I didn’t think it was important enough.”
There are moments when O’Neal is still confronted with stereotypes. During her freshmen year another student passing her on the staircase called out, “What are you looking at, towelhead?” O’Neal responded by asking the young man to touch her scarf. He looked confused, but she prodded him, telling him it was not a towel and to, “never again use your ignorance to put someone else down.”
Ultimately, the bullying led O’Neal to develop an articulate, confident voice with which she dispels stereotypes – but this trait is shared among the Islamic school students as well. Albeit for them, it was developed under different circumstances.