Words are the most common weapon of bullies, but in the past month harassment in schools is increasingly manifesting in physical attacks and incidents are taking a psychological toll on some students
While watching a TV news report on the Paris attacks with her seventh-grade class, Farah Darvesh became acutely aware that she was suddenly the center of her classmates’ attention.
“When they said Muslim terrorists did it, everyone’s heads turned and all eyes in the room were on me,” says 12-year-old Farah, one of only three Muslims at her middle school in Columbus, Georgia.
A few weeks later, a classmate asked Farah point blank: “Why did your people kill those people in Paris and San Bernardino?”
Farah, a highly confident and self-described popular girl among her peers and teachers, had “gotten used to people joking” that she was a terrorist. But even so, she said: “Before the attacks I was mostly treated like everyone else. But now I’m having to answer questions about my religion and the actions of people I don’t even know. It’s a lot of pressure. I mean, I’m only 12.”
She waited for her anger to cool down before retorting to her classmate: “Don’t ask me, ask them. Do I ask you why your people are shooting up schools?”
“That shut him up,” Farah said. She concedes that she may not have the best answer, but she’s doing her best considering the circumstances. “I’m feeling the same way everybody else is – I’m mad at Isis too. They’re killing innocent Muslims everywhere too. The shooting in San Bernardino happened 9 miles from my cousin’s school. It’s very scary that she was so close to danger. But exactly because I’m a good Muslim, I’m not going to take my anger out on anyone.”
Muslim American students, many of whom weren’t even born until after September 11, are coming of age in an era of a protracted “war on terror” abroad, and broad surveillance and profiling of their community at home. In the month since attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have spurred escalating rhetoric from Donald Trump and other politicians, the long-simmering Islamophobia in America has reached a boiling point with a litany of threats, vandalism, and violence against Muslims.
Versions of this anti-Muslim sentiment have also been playing out in the classroom setting.
Muhammad Rahman, a 15-year-old at a Chicago high school, says he gets asked “Is that a clock or a bomb?” at least once a day since the international outcry over the arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed. That the uproar was over teachers and police wrongfully assuming Ahmed’s homemade clock to be a bomb – when in fact it was a clock – doesn’t matter to Muhammad’s bullies.
Muhammad Rahman is a 15-year-old Chicago high school student.
“Even the nicest people, who you wouldn’t expect to be mean, say stuff,” Muhammad says. “I know my friends aren’t racist of course, but the jokes aren’t funny when they’re disrespectful.
“Every day, they make sure to let me know that I’m different from everyone else.”
In Georgia, a school principal apologized last week after a teacher asked a Muslim student if she had a bomb in her backpack.
In the past month, anti-Muslim sentiment in schools is increasingly manifesting in physical attacks, particularly against girls who wear the hijab. On 19 November, three boys allegedly beat up a sixth-grade girl wearing a hijab, calling her “Isis”. A 2014 study by Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) study found 29% of students who wore hijab experienced offensive touching or pulling of their scarves.