Outrage swept across social media on Friday over allegations that a Maplewood teacher removed a hijab from the head of a second-grader.
For Muslim families, it wouldn’t be the first time that Islamophobia has compromised the safety of the classroom.
In southern Brunswick last year, a parent complained after a local teacher used the movie “Not Without My Daughter” to teach students about Islam. The film has been criticized for promoting negative and extreme stereotypes about Muslims.
In another Middlesex County case, a teacher had to step in to arrest a sixth grade boy who was chasing and taunting a student shouting “Allahu Akbar!”
For Muslims, who view the hijab as an expression of faith, the alleged episode ofMaplewood was hurtful and offensive. He also highlighted what community leaders see as a larger issue of prejudice in the classroom.
âThis is really a wake-up call for the districts,â said Nagla Bedir, founder of Teaching While Muslim, a New Jersey-based nonprofit focused on anti-bias education and training. âA lot of schools across the country have tried to be more inclusive and anti-racist, but part of the anti-racism is also [teaching about] Islamophobia.
The South Orange-Maplewood School District said it was investigating the allegations, which were detailed in an Instagram post Thursday by Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, from Maplewood who said she was friends with the mother of the child. The bronze medalist was the first American Muslim woman to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics.
Muslim students often report bullying because of their faith, and teachers should support them rather than add to their distress, said Selaedin Maksut, executive director of the New Jersey section of the Council on US-Islamic Relations. But this has not always been the case.
In southern Brunswick, he said, “Not Without My Daughter” was shown in class although a parent had also complained about the use of the film the previous year.
Half of Muslim parents with children in K-12 schools said their children had been bullied because of their religion, according to a 2020 survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a group based in Michigan who studies the American Muslim community.
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Thirty percent said a teacher or other school official was the source of the bullying.
âIslamophobia in our public schools must be tackled in New Jersey and across the country,â Maksut said. âClassrooms are a place where students feel safe and welcome, without fear of practicing their faith. “
Muhammad, in his post, said the teacher was “forcibly removing” the girl’s hijab in class.
“The young student resisted trying to keep her hijab on, but the teacher took it off, exposing her hair to the class,” she wrote.
The teacher “told the student that her hair was beautiful and that she no longer had to wear the hijab to school,” Muhammad added. âImagine being a child and stripped of your clothes in front of your classmates. Imagine the humiliation and trauma this experience has caused her.
In a statement, the school district said it was investigating the case after receiving a flood of social media posts and that “the district takes issues of discrimination very seriously.”
“We must respect our legal obligations to keep matters relating to staff and students confidential,” the statement said. “We will use existing official district procedural mechanisms to ensure fair and equitable results based on the results of our investigation. Any decision or outcome related to this will be reserved after the investigation is completed.”
How schools can do better
CAIR called for the teacher’s dismissal. Muslim leaders have said any educator should know that religious clothing should not be removed from a child, regardless of education or background.
Better education and the inclusion of Islam in classes can help deter instances of bias, whether overt or implied, said Bedir, the founder of Teaching While Muslim.
âIf a student is harassed because of a hijab, if a teacher does not understand the meaning of the hijab and its significance for religion, they may not respond appropriately,â Bedir said.
There are examples where schools have done the right thing. During the mockery incident in Middlesex, the teacher brought the students together to explain the meaning of “Allahu Akbar” and allowed the girl to say why the actions were hurtful. The boy apologized, Bedir said.
It helped the teacher understand that this was an everyday phrase spoken as an expression of faith and not as something negative, she added.
Bedir, a secondary school teacher in Perth Amboy, said she had never had any training or professional development that included Muslims or Muslim students. She founded Teaching While Muslim in 2018 to fill a “massive gap in teacher education on Muslims and Muslim students.”
The organization offers workshops on curriculum, implicit biases, interaction with students and families, Islamophobia and identity. He is also drafting a program with CAIR that Bedir hopes New Jersey will adopt to show the contributions of Muslims in all disciplines, she said.
State lawmakers have mandated similar programs on the Holocaust, slavery, and the achievements of the LGBTQ community. They are currently considering a requirement for an Asian American history curriculum, after an increase in anti-Asian violence in recent months.
Bedir’s group also provides lesson plans and reading lists for educators and students. Such lessons can help children feel included and not like “another,” she said.
Muhammad, the Olympic fencer, has spoken and written about the prejudices she faced growing up black and Muslim.
Inspired by her own experience, she published a children’s book in 2019 titled “The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family”. It is about two sisters on their first day of school, when one of them faces taunts because of her hijab.
“I wrote this book with the intention that times like this will never happen again,” Muhammad wrote in his widely shared article on the allegations at Maplewood.
âSchools should be a safe haven for all of our children to feel safe, welcome and protected, regardless of their faith,â she wrote.
Editor-in-chief Liam Quinn contributed to this report.
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, prejudice and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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