When I was a kid, bullying was often treated as an unhappy but inevitable part of childhood. I experienced it — and perpetuated it — without much intervention from adults. Recent documentaries like “Bully” and anti-bullying campaigns like Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project have challenged conventional thinking and encouraged us to confront bullying as a cultural phenomenon.
Despite these shifts, some Muslim Americans in our region say they feel overlooked by these campaigns even as their children suffer regular harassment and bullying — often over their religion.
“Recently schools across America have taken a stronger stance against bullying,” says Maryam Hussain, a Bellevue College student who lives in Kirkland and says anti-bullying campaigns more often focus on race or sexual orientation than religion. “People are not using examples of bullying against Muslims.”
Hussain has plenty of examples. She first experienced bullying as an elementary-school student in a small town on the East Coast where a kid on the school bus, referencing her hijab, called her a “towel head” and a “terrorist.” During those same years, her younger sister was having her headscarf ripped off on the playground.
When the family moved to Kirkland, Hussain says, she thought her problems were over.
“I felt so relieved because everyone here is so accepting, and there’s such a diverse community,” says Hussain, but instead she was “surprised and shocked” when the harassment continued.
When she was a senior in high school, a fellow student ridiculed her headscarf in the hallway, telling her she didn’t have to “wear that stupid thing.” And just last week, her younger brother and sister were walking home from school when a car passed them and the driver screamed a profanity and called them terrorists.
Unfortunately Hussain’s experiences aren’t unusual, says Jeff Siddiqui. He’s a Lynnwood real-estate agent who became concerned with Islamophobic bullying when his daughter called him from her high school crying because of a lesson in her U.S. government class. Siddiqui says a teacher, while discussing the 9/11 attacks, warned his daughter’s class of “Muslim sleeper cells” and cautioned students to be “careful who you make friends with.”
He said his daughter felt singled out and stereotyped, insulted and embarrassed by the insinuation that any Muslim American could be an undercover terrorist.
“After 9/11, it was like being thrown head first into the ocean. You can no longer, as a Muslim, remain above the fray,” says Siddiqui. “That fire is lapping at your feet whether you like it or not.”
In response Siddiqui, along with the recently formed group United Muslims of Washington state, is sponsoring an anti-bullying event at Bellevue College this weekend called “Take A Stand.” There will be speakers from human- and civil-rights organizations, as well as a representative from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The goal, says Siddiqui, is to encourage Muslim students and families to learn about their rights and stand up against bullying and harassment.
“Most parents are first-generation immigrants in this country,” explains Siddiqui who adds that, in his experience, complaints about anti-Muslim bullying can be dismissed or downplayed, and families are often afraid to push the issue. “They have a fear of authority, and they don’t want to rock the boat.”
Twenty-year-old Hussain hopes the conference will help, but she has a longer term plan, too. She wants to be an elementary-school teacher and serve as a role model for a growing population of Muslim kids, while also helping non-Muslim students, parents and teachers learn more about her faith.
“They’ll be exposed by an early age to a Muslim girl, and they’ll know that we’re not all terrorists,” says Hussain. “We’re normal people.”
And like any normal people, their kids deserve protection against bullying, too.
The “Take A Stand” conference (free and open to the public) is Saturday, 2-5 p.m., in the Bellevue College cafeteria.