A hijab is a veil that is worn by Muslim women when they are in the presence of men who fall outside of their immediate family circle. While it can be a sign of modesty, the decision for a woman to wear one can also come down to a sense of pride in their identities or can become a visible and tangible representation of one’s religious affiliation.
Throughout the years, there have been narratives surrounding hijabs and modesty garments across various religions, especially when it comes to those worn by women. Some may view them as oppressive, others may adopt a negative stereotype because of the religion that a garment like a hijab may symbolize and represent. Both viewpoints erase the cultural significance of a hijab, further widening the education gap and deepening the feeling of othering.
In recent weeks, a teacher from New Jersey violated a lifelong choice of a second-grader, allegedly pulling the student’s hijab off in front of her class.
In early October, allegations were made against Tamar Herman, a Seth Boyden Elementary School teacher who allegedly removed the hijab of a student during class, despite the student resisting and attempting to hold onto the garment. The teacher reportedly successfully removed the hijab, thus exposing the student’s hair to the class.
This incident was shared on social media by 2016 Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Maplewood, New Jersey resident. The Olympian shared two posts on the subject on Instagram, bringing attention to it through her social media platforms. In her caption, Muhammad claims that the teacher had told the student that she didn’t need to wear a hijab anymore to school because her hair was beautiful.
“Imagine being a child and stripped of your clothing in front of your classmates,” the caption continued. “Imagine the humiliation and trauma this experience has caused her. This is abuse. Schools should be a haven for all of our kids to feel safe, welcome, and protected— no matter their faith.”
She added, “We cannot move toward a post-racial America until we weed out the racism and bigotry that still exist in all layers of our society. By protecting Muslim girls who wear hijab, we are protecting the rights of all of us to have a choice in the way we dress.”
What’s the aftermath?
Herman denied the allegations through a statement from her attorney. In the statement, she said that the student wasn’t wearing a hijab, but was wearing a hoodie instead.
“In accordance with school policy, Ms. Herman directed a student in her class to pull down the hood on a hooded sweatshirt because it was blocking her eyes – and immediately rescinded that request when she realized that the student was wearing the hood in place of, rather than on top of, her usual hijab,” the teacher’s attorney, Samatha Harris, told NBC.
The seven-year-old student’s mother, Zaynab Wyatt, has contested the teacher’s statement, saying that other students recounted the teacher’s comments about her daughter’s hair. Wyatt also told the outlet that both of her daughters have worn hijabs since infancy, as it is part of both their religious and cultural identities.
Why is this problematic?
Islamophobia, the fear, hatred, or prejudice against the religion of Islam or Muslims, has been a societal phenomenon plaguing the country, especially following the September 11 attacks on the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City and at the Pentagon. The FBI reported that hate crimes against Muslims rose 1617% from 2000 to 2001. Mosques were burned and harassment and death threats were directed toward Muslims from Americans.
Twenty years later, this broad prejudice has not ceased to exist not only in the United States but also worldwide. In years as recent as 2016 and 2019, there have been increases in islamophobia just in the United States, leading to a rise in hate crimes and overall discrimination.
This has become a particularly large issue in France, with lawmakers seeking to outlaw hijabs for minors. Earlier in 2021, the French Senate passed a measure that would ban anyone under 18 from wearing a hijab in public. This would serve as an amendment to a pre-existing law that was introduced by the government to “address religious extremism.” In another amendment, lawmakers sought to ban body-covering swimsuits–often called a “burqini” or “burkini”–from being worn at public pools and beaches. These modest swimsuit garments have been popularized by Muslim women, and these laws have continued the debate within the European country over Muslim clothing, even if they likely will not become official laws.
Anti-Muslim hatred and sentiments have ceased to diminish globally, reigniting over the years as events continued to transpire. Whether it was related to the Iraq War, falsified rumors of President Barack Obama’s religion and upbringing, negative comments made by the former president about Muslims and the religion of Islam, or terrorist attacks that have occurred throughout the world and thus were put on a large, public stage for all to read about.
Even still, the Muslim population continues to rise within the United States. However, surveys have shown that many Americans have admitted to not knowing a Muslim or not knowing anything about Muslims. This unknown area is where fear and prejudice can foster, a starting point for acts like what occurred at Seth Boyden Elementary School.