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THE GREAT DIVIDE

‘I was too scared to tell anyone’: In new survey, 61 percent of Muslim students say they’ve been bullied in school

CAIR-MA's 2019 Muslim Youth Leadership Program.
CAIR-MA's 2019 Muslim Youth Leadership Program.CAIR-MA

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Yusra, 14, stopped wearing a hijab at her high school when girls spread false rumors that she bragged about being a member of ISIS. When she took the hijab off, a boy told her she still looked like a terrorist.

Ali, another Boston-area student, faced bullying from a classmate who drew a picture of him as a terrorist at the World Trade Center.

Yusra and Ali, whose names were changed for privacy, were two of nearly 200 Massachusetts students surveyed for a recent school climate analysis by the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The report found 61 percent of Muslim students have been made fun of, verbally insulted, or abused just for being Muslim.

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Fourteen percent said they don’t feel comfortable telling others at school that they are Muslim.

“We want to make sure that Muslim students know that they are not alone and that they have the power to be able to report these bullying incidences and that CAIR is here to ensure that their rights are also being protected to be students and to learn,” Fatuma Mohamed, youth advocacy officer for the Massachusetts chapter of CAIR, said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations

The local group compiled the survey, which studied 190 students in grades 6 through 12 during the 2019-20 academic year. Their findings were disheartening, Mohamed said.

The study found that Muslim students are not being bullied solely for their religion, but also because of their social identities, including race, family income, and immigration status. Fifty-two percent of students reported bullying based on their race or ethnicity, and 25 percent said they were bullied because of their family’s income.

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Of the students surveyed, 40 percent said they’ve heard of someone who wears a hijab being physically harassed at school. Nearly 17 percent reported having their own hijab tugged, pulled on, or otherwise offensively touched.

Thirty-three percent of Muslim students surveyed said they have altered their appearance, behavior, or name to hide their Muslim identity.

Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations

“I was in middle school, one guy tugged on my hijab and I was too scared to tell anyone,” said one of the Muslim students surveyed.

“I was in 10th grade when it happened, it was [the anniversary of] 9/11 . . . one of the students associated me with the attacks and kept on following me and calling me Osama’s daughter,” another student said.

“Bullying is something that is taken lightly in our school,” said a third. “Though there might not be physical bullying, there is bullying in regard to comments and teasing from classmates. In my opinion I feel like bullying against Muslim students is not taken as serious as it should [be].”

In its report, the Council on American-Islamic Relations laid out antibullying plans for families and schools to utilize to protect students, including the Massachusetts laws that protect young people from bullying. Post-9/11, the group wrote, American Muslim students are often forced to defend their religious identity, “which is frequently undercut by stereotypical misunderstandings of Islam and Muslims.”

One of the key things that teachers and school administrators can do to make schools a safe environment for Muslim students is to take reports of bullying seriously, Mohamed said.

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“A lot of our cases come up that young people, they report their bullying,” Mohamed said, “but no one’s listening to them, and no one’s doing anything about it.”

As an elementary school student in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Jordan Ahmed remembered feeling the need to hide their Muslim identity from classmates.

“I sort of publicly in school thought, ‘OK, I can’t really talk about being a Muslim anymore.’ And that led to a decadeslong struggle with: How do I be and own my Muslim identity?” said Ahmed, a community organizer for the Muslim Justice League who works with local teachers, parents, and students.

Ahmed wants today’s young people to know: There is nothing inherently wrong with your identity. You can be openly and proudly Muslim. And if you are bullied for your identity, speak out.

“Don’t feel like you need to be silent,” Ahmed said. “Do tell people, and if people don’t believe you, tell someone else. Tell whoever you trust in your life.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.