By Siobhan Benet
WEnews content manager
Friday, September 21, 2001
Muslim women wearing recognizable head scarves for modesty are targeted for insult or attack since the terror attacks. And South Asian women who "look" like Arabs are targeted because of their looks. Some white women are wearing scarves in solidarity.
(WOMENSENEWS)--In the aftermath of the U.S. terrorist attacks, Muslim American and Arab American women--many recognizable by their distinctive head scarves, or hijabs--have become the targets of violence. Many women are terrified to leave their homes and fear for the safety of their children and husbands. And, like all Americans, Muslim and Arab Americans are in deep mourning over the loss of innocent lives.
South Asian women--Hindus, Sikhs and Christians--also have been harassed because of their looks and clothing, targeted because they look foreign.
In a demonstration of solidarity, some non-Muslim women across the country have adopted hijabs in order to show that they stand alongside their sisters and oppose prejudice and violence.
The level of antagonism against Arabs and even those who may resemble Arabs or wear Muslim garb has risen dramatically since the attacks.
"Because they wear the hijab, Muslim women are the most visible," said Joshua Salaam, civil rights coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C.
Khaled Iqbal, the operations director at the council, reported the organization has received more than 400 reports of civil rights violations against Muslims since last Tuesday. Last year they had received 600.
Maha ElGenaidi, of the Islamic Networks Group in San Francisco, has received death threats by telephone and e-mail. A computer virus has twice shut down the group's computer system.
"People don't know what to do," ElGenaidi said. "They are feeling alienated. They're reaching out--even if that means reaching out with hate calls."
On the other side of the nation, Sharifa Alkhateeb, the president of the North American Council for Muslim Women in northern Virginia, reported similar apprehension.
"As a community, we are very scared," she said.
And Alkhateeb has never been one to succumb to fear. An outspoken activist who has raised her voice against domestic violence in the Muslim community and has worked with U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to forge ties between Muslims, Christians and Jews, Alkhateeb is reeling from the backlash that the Muslim community has received since the bombings.
Mosques across the country have been closed all week and will not reopen until Friday, the traditional day of prayer. Some mosques have told women not to go to prayers--women and men are always segregated--at a time when millions of Americans are turning to places of worship in order to grieve, mourn and heal.
Alkhateeb was born and reared in the United States by immigrant parents--her father is from Yemen and her mother is from Czechoslovakia. Yet, the aftermath of last week's tragedy has left her frightened about what the future holds for Arab and Muslim Americans.
"We are afraid to send our children to school. My daughter took her son out of Muslim school and is enrolling him in public school. She is just so terrified that he will become a target of violence if he stays in the Muslim school," she said.
"This is worse than during the Gulf war, when our children were beaten up in school and all brown people, including Pakistanis, were under attack," Alkhateeb said.
"Most of the Muslims in my community are middle-class professionals, and they are scared. People forget that more than 80 Muslims were killed in the Twin Towers," she added.
"There are thousands of Muslims like myself who are just trying to help. As soon as we heard of the bombings, members of the Adams Mosque went to George Washington hospital to give blood. I have to say that everyone there was very nice and polite," said Alkhateeb.
"I cried when I saw a woman on TV mourning the loss of her son. I felt as every woman would feel. I mourned as if I were mourning the loss of my own son," she said.
As a result of the attacks against Muslim women and children, Alkhateeb is in the process of developing safety tips for women and children on how they can avoid violence. For example, one of her protocols says that if someone sets fire to the head scarf, or hajib, it can be removed, without fear of committing a sin of immodesty. A couple of years ago, she said, a woman refused to remove her hajib for fear of violating the laws of Islam, though it had been set on fire. As a result, half of her body was burned.
These concerns are very real and not limited to urban centers. Hada Spiteri, an employee of the Islamic Center of Long Island, in Westbury, N.Y., reports being insulted in her suburban community.
"I just returned from Staples where I had my credit card thrown back at me by the young cashier. I also had an incident at the grocery store," Spiteri said. An elderly man, who was with his wife, leaned toward her and muttered, "There goes another one of them."
"My sister, who was behind the couple, looked him square in the eye and said, 'That was a very prejudiced thing to say' and asked him why he was hiding behind his wife. After that he wouldn't make eye contact."
Teen-agers and even younger children are reporting that even teachers are making frighteningly biased statements.
"Many women are nervous about wearing the scarf and are trying to take it off," said 17-year-old Rula Alnajjar of Brooklyn. This week, her health class teacher announced to the class that all Arabs are terrorists, and Alnajjar has requested a transfer.
"I wasn't wearing my scarf in class when the teacher said those things," Alnajjar said. "I used to like my teacher and now after this I don't want to see her face ever again."
"One of the mosques put out a fatwa (religious edict) saying that women can take off their scarves if they are afraid at work. But this is like telling a Muslim to take off all her clothes and walk around in public," said Alkhateeb.
Across the country, Muslim women have been turning to volunteer escort services, many of them made up by non-Muslims, as a way to ensure their safety.
"Women are afraid to go to the supermarket and children are afraid to go to school," said Iman Robin, who works at the Arab-American Family Support Center in downtown Brooklyn and has received over 25 reports of hate crime incidents.
"A friend of mine was at the laundromat and a man tried to attack her with a knife. Other friends of mine have encountered certain looks and certain comments. People have received comments like 'Go back home, we don't want you.'"
"Today I filled out a form for my 14-year-old high school freshman daughter to take back to her guidance counselor so that she could be transferred out of her social studies class," said Amina Wadud, a professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va.
"Her teacher has been making derogatory statements about Muslims and Islam since Tuesday. My daughter, not a traditionalist by any means, just got tired of it. But because she's a child, she had no recourse to directly address the teacher, who since Tuesday has implied that all Muslims are terrorists and that she was sorry that she had wasted her time taking a course on Islam."
Amrita Basu, a professor of political science and women's and gender studies at Amherst College, is concerned that the bombings may have provided a pretext to further limit civil liberties.
"Women of all colors and classes will be affected if we go to war," Basu said. "During periods of aggression, the state's priority is fighting and winning--not the expansion of a social welfare net."
Leila Ahmed, Muslim American professor of women's studies and religious studies at Harvard University, has been impressed by the Cambridge community's efforts to unite.
"It's extraordinary seeing the unity this is bringing," Ahmed said. "At the local mosque, a Euro-American woman said that women could volunteer and chaperone hijab-wearing women. There's a determination to fight discrimination."
Maha ElGenaidi notes that the Islamic Networks Group has received "five to six times more supportive calls than hate calls. I received a half-dozen white roses from a very kind man who enclosed a note that read: In America, Muslims and Jews and Christians are all brothers ... not all Americans hate you."
Members of DC Web Women, a Washington, D.C., organization for women in new media, are also showing their support for the Muslim community through such efforts as the Scarves for Solidarity campaign in which non-Muslim women wear headscarves to support all Muslims.
And the Islamic Networks Group will hold a prayer vigil on Oct. 6 when the hijab will be worn by all women of all faiths and backgrounds.
Siobhan Benet is content manager for Women's Enews. Additional reporting by Vaishalee Mishra in Missouri and Maya Dollarhide in New York.
American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee:
Contact for "Scarves for Solidarity Campaign" -- Jennifer Schock: firstname.lastname@example.org
North American Council for Muslim Women:
Islamic Center of Long Island:
Arab American Family Support Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.:
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR):
Islamic Networks Group, San Francisco, Calif.:
By Rekha Basu
Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's Enews or NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.
BOCA RATON, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)--Driving home late from work this week, I found myself being tail-gated. That in itself is not unusual. I work in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and drive I-95, a route distinguished for its impatient motorists. But this wasn't about holding someone up. This was deliberate.
I was in a center lane, and all three of the other lanes were empty. The driver was right on my rear bumper, his headlights shining into my mirror, for what felt like 10 miles. He was a young blond man, driving a gray sports car. At first I wondered if I knew him and it was a joke, then if I had accidentally cut him off and this was the payback. Neither was the case, though.
Then it occurred to me that I was being randomly harassed--and then that there was nothing random about it. And at some point the thought crossed my mind: Maybe he was punishing me for the World Trade Center explosions. The pall that's stretched across America these last 10 days has taken on a particular edge in South Florida because most of the 19 suspected hijackers lived here and used local facilities.
I'm Indian, and look it, though I grew up in New York and dress mostly in Western clothes. I am also a columnist for an American daily newspaper here.
Since last Tuesday, I've been utterly consumed by the hijackings, both personally and professionally. When I haven't been writing or grieving over the original carnage, I've been writing or grieving over the backlash.
Not only were many South Asians among the victims and rescuers, but many have also now become the victims of random intimidation and violence because they share the same visible ethnic characteristics as some of the perpetrators. Some Americans, learning that the suspected hijackers were Arab Muslims, have decided to hold every Arab or Muslim accountable. And some who cannot tell the difference have decided to throw one mammoth blanket of suspicion over all Indians, Muslims, Hindus and particularly Sikhs. I am a Sikh.
Around the country, Sikhs, many of them recognized for their beards and turbans, have been clubbed, snatched off the train by police, and stoned. One was shot to death last week. Sikhs, by the way, are not Middle Eastern. They are Indian, and the only thing they have in common with the presumed terrorists overseas is their wearing of turbans.
I hear my mother in New York discuss the fear among Indian women of going out wearing their traditional outfits. And then I listen to the radio and hear even reasonable people discussing how they stared some foreigners down, or want to commit violence against them. I have heard it even from friends. One woman actually wrote to me that she will never again trust any Arabs, Indians or Muslims--and never smile at one on the street. But did anyone boycott clean-shaven white Americans after the Oklahoma City bombing?
Some South Asians expect they are protected because they are so Americanized--until they discover otherwise. Eighteen-year-old Sonia Sudan, a Boca Raton high school student, was at a Kinko's copy shop on Tuesday getting stationery made, when a store employee called the Sheriff's Department on her. A deputy hauled her out and held her in a squad car until the FBI arrived and let her go. Sonia was having cards printed for her boyfriend, who's about to go into the Air Force. She had illustrated them with a pentagram, modeled on a piece of his jewelry.
A store employee called police, saying Sonia was drawing Satanic symbols and had told employees her boyfriend was going off to war. "They must have seen this dark-skinned girl, got nervous and said there's war stationery being made," says Sonia's mother, Marcia Sudan, who was there with her. Sonia was so shaken by the incident that she couldn't go to school the next day. The Kinko's store manager wouldn't talk to me other than to say she had apologized.
Some wariness is inevitable after a disaster of such magnitude. But this is going too far. For some people, it seems only to have provided an outlet for already hostile feelings toward foreigners or immigrants. For those of us who have lived in America all or most of our lives, the worst part is the new nagging sense of uneasiness every time something vaguely unpleasant happens, like my highway tail-gating experience.
If this divisiveness and scape-goating are going to become a way of life, we will destroy ourselves as a country more thoroughly than any bombs or hijackers can.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.