Arms full of groceries, Nadine Kadri (11) walked out of Vons alongside her sister, when she saw the man. Walking through the parking lot, they watched as he spit on their car. Just minutes before, he had called out Nadine’s sister, who wears a hijab, in the store and rudely asked what she was wearing on her head.
“It was not only terrible, but it also showed that these kinds of acts can occur anywhere, with all kinds of people,” Kadri said.
Traditionally, the hijab, or head covering, is worn by Muslim women as a sign of piety and modesty, as was originally prescribed by the Quran. While it still signifies these values among Muslims, the hijab has become an outward identifier of Muslim women, who have become easy targets of prejudice by those who associate all Muslims with extremist terrorists. Any connection to Islam, in particular a woman wearing a hijab, has the potential to incite conflict, according to Bahar Davary, associate professor of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego.
Kadri said she chooses not to wear a hijab because she does not feel her connection with God is strong enough to justify doing so. Last year, her sister made the decision to wear one and has since been harassed. When Kadri walks into a restaurant or another public place with her sister, she honestly feels that “people cringe a bit because they’re scared of what’s going to happen.”
TPHS sisters Atieh Rastandeh (10) and Amineh Rastandeh (12) are both practicing Muslims, but only Atieh wears a hijab. According to Atieh, she chooses to wear a hijab because it is what Islam prescribes.
“I wear my hijab for modesty and just for my religion,” Atieh said. “[the Quran] tells you to cover your hair and not show your outer beauty, but rather your inner beauty. I felt that my connection to God was starting to get stronger, and I wanted to show my modesty, so I decided to wear it.”
Atieh’s older sister, Amineh, chooses not to wear a hijab, not because she does not fully believe in her faith and what it dictates, but because she does not feel she has a close enough connection to God.
“I don’t wear a hijab [like my sister] because I don’t think I’m ready,” Amineh said. “I need to learn everything about my religion to be fully ready. I want to be able to teach other people about my religion, and if they ask about my religion or why I wear a hijab, I want to be able to properly answer them.”
Both sisters say they see evidence of people making a connection between Muslims and terrorism, and hijabs are outward signs of a woman’s Muslim faith, so they also incite prejudice.
“You can’t say a certain group of people is bad or assume that someone is dangerous because they wear something different on their head,” Atieh said.
The correlation between hijabs and the assumption of terrorist affiliation has led to increasing levels of discrimination against Muslim women across the country. In an incident in February 2015, a white woman sitting near Darlene Hider, a practicing Muslim, and her family on a Delta flight to Denver screamed, “This is America!”
When Hider attempted to get help from the flight attendant, the only thing she received was further harassment.
“You better be quiet before I kick you off of this plane,” the flight attendant told Hider, telling her, rather than the woman who had insulted her, to switch seats, according to the Denver Post.
While discrimination against Muslims is often perpetrated by those of non-Middle Eastern descent, Muslim-American women who wear hijabs often also face criticism from those who do not.
“My mom wears a hijab to protect her dignity, and it serves as a way to bring her peace and remind her of her connection with God,” Arman Saadatkhah, a practicing Muslim (10) said. “But sometimes, people criticize her for wearing one. And the people who criticize her are mainly other Persian women who don’t wear a hijab. They say to my mom, ‘You were in this regime and you were forced to wear a hijab. But, now you’re in America, so why don’t you take it off?’”
Prof. Davary found that many people believe Islam encourages the subjugation of women and Muslim men coerce Muslim women into wearing hijabs rather than seeing the choice to wear the head covering as a woman’s personal promise to God.
However, she also said that the prejudice toward hijab-wearing women is “somewhat surprising,” because the practice is not specific to Islam, but also practiced by women of Jewish and Christian faiths. Islamophobia is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the prejudice against or dislike of Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force. While Davary said that Muslim women have experienced more discrimination with the recent growth of Islamophobia, she said that there has still been a “definite resurgence” of women in hijabs.
“Muslim women may wear hijabs to create a greater gender balance in the workplace, or also simply as a kind of nostalgia. They could be longing for the past and for notions of identity and self,” Davary said.
Davary looks to education as a tool to increase people’s exposure to different cultures — Islam in particular — and to get rid of the idea that the Islamic religion must be equated with acts of terrorism.
“Learning about all religions and what they’re really about is very important to being empathetic and understanding of the values of others,” Davary said.
Islamophobia still pervasive in the media
When “American Sniper” was released in Jan. 2015, it immediately suffered major criticism for its representations of Arabs and Muslims, along with its disregard for the emotional and moral implications of war for Iraqi civilians. The incidents of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab hate speech and threats tripled in the United States shortly following the film’s release, according to a letter sent by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to director Clint Eastwood and actor Bradley Cooper, asking them to condemn the threats.
“People forget that there are 6 million Muslims in the country and that they are both American and Muslim,” Davary said. “To create a binary of ‘us versus them,’ or American versus Muslim, would certainly be a false dichotomy. There are 1.5 billion Muslims around the world, but the media constantly talks about ISIS and constantly portrays all Muslims as terrorists.”
Faran Tahir, a local practicing Muslim and Pakistani-American actor, says about 30 to 40 percent of the roles he is offered perpetuate the stereotypical image of Muslim and Arab people, so he turns most of them down.
“When we talk about people from Europe, we don’t group the French with the Italians or the Spanish with the Germans,” Tahir said. “We understand that these countries and these people have their own identities, but when it comes to the Middle East, it’s always the same.”
When possible, Tahir tries to work with writers and producers to create characters with a “level of complexity” by eliminating “allusions to race or religion,” as he did with the producers of “Iron Man,” in which he played the leader of an Islamic terrorist organization. But despite his experiences, Tahir said the treatment and portrayal of Muslims in the American film industry is “getting better.” He attributes this change to the increasing influence of social media, greater exposure to other cultures and the added economic incentive of accurate portrayal throughout the country.
“It’s harder to depict [people] in a stereotypical way because you’re taking away international box office [revenue], which is more important now than the domestic box office,” Tahir said. “If people get offended by your content, they’re not going to go see your movie.”
Yet, even though Tahir believes that accurate representation of Muslims in the media is both increasing and improving, he recognizes that there is still work to be done in other areas of society to diminish the common stigma that surrounds people of the Middle East. He cites more instances in which he was humiliated because of his religion while in public than at work.
“Is it changing at a pace that I like? No,” Tahir said. “But, I think there is a shift where you see more and more characters on TV and such that are not just stereotypical bad guys from the [Middle East].”
Tahir remembers seeing people spit on the ground when they saw him walking with his Caucasian ex-wife; Sadaatkhah shares a similar experience.
“Sometimes, when I go to the grocery store and a manager sees me, he’ll start to follow me just to make sure I don’t take anything.’” Saadatkhah said. “People see me and they say, ‘He’s from the Middle East, he’s going to blow us all up, he’s going to kill us with his AKs.’”
Sadaatkhah attributes many of the negative stereotypes surrounding Muslim and Arab people to the actions of Islamic extremists, whom he does not consider true Muslims.
“I have many friends and family members who have had firsthand encounters with the Taliban and other terrorist organizations,” Saadatkhah said. “It’s really disturbing, what they do. Most Muslim people hate them.”
Living with a stigma
Even at an early age, Saadatkhah grew accustomed to the racist remarks and constant bullying by his Denver elementary school peers. He recalls getting into fights often with other kids as a child, physically and emotionally wounded by each successive incident.
“[Other people] assume that, ‘He’s from the Middle East, so he must be bad.’ Saadatkhah said. “What they don’t get is that I’m also Iranian-American. They don’t see that; they just see the Iranian part.”
For many Muslim students like Saadatkhah, this sort of discrimination has become an everyday reality. On Feb. 10, news of the murders of three Muslim college students in their Chapel Hill, N.C. apartment went viral. While non-Muslim allies condemned the attack from within the safety and comfort of their homes, Muslims everywhere feared even more for their safety.
“To me, this has been the biggest event that has shaken a lot of Muslims,” Davary said. “You have three students, young, beautiful people who are not only students but are doing service for their communities and then this guy … puts the gun behind their heads, shoots them. When you hear something like that, you could think, ‘I might be the next victim because I’m visibly Muslim.’”
Incidents like the Chapel Hill shooting are relatively uncommon in comparison to the “subtle racism” that Muslims experience more frequently, whether at school, in the workplace or on the streets. According the American Psychological Association, subtle racism occurs when the perpetrator subconsciously acts in a racist manner. For example, environmental micro-aggressions such as media misrepresentation cause a trickle-down effect in which some viewers may come to believe that making fun of Muslims is socially acceptable, a phenomenon which is especially observed in school settings. Kadri remembers such incidents with particular clarity. In fourth grade, Kadri’s substitute teacher called “all Muslims terrorists” and subsequently turned her classmates against her. When Kadri’s best friend told her mother that Kadri was Muslim, her friend’s mother overtly disapproved of the friendship. Last year, she distinctly remembers being called a “camel jockey” by a peer.
While Saadatkhah, like Kadri, has been targeted for being Muslim at TPHS, he still believes that he is treated better now than he was when he lived in Denver, and that for the most part, TPHS students “watch what they say” or will stop joking around if he tells them to stop.
Several years ago, when Principal David Jaffe was the director of curriculum for SDUHSD, he received a complaint claiming that the 7th grade world history textbook “glanced over some harsher parts of the Islamic religion and culture.” Jaffe believes that occurrences such as this one serve as a constant reminder of how Islamophobia continues to pervade the educational system as well as society as a whole.
When TPHS students act in a racist manner, Jaffe and his administration first try to take an educational approach before prescribing punishment, because he believes that these actions “generally stem out of being ignorant.”
While they all believe that discrimination of Muslims is inevitable to some extent, Saadatkhah, Kadri and Jaffe all feel that the treatment of Muslims at TPHS and around the world is gradually improving.
“Time heals all wounds. For some people, it takes longer. For others, it takes less [time],” Saadatkhah said.
“I am not ashamed”
In a world that tends to group those of the same faith together, Tahir stresses the importance of acknowledging the fact that all Muslims have unique stories and that their identities are not necessarily dependent on what they believe in.
Yet, there was one thing that TPHS Muslims have in common: at no point in their lives have any of them ever been ashamed of being Muslim.