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'I walk on the bus and everyone looks at me.' Some Cornell students who wear the hijab say it's made them a target

After the war in Gaza began, advocacy groups reported spikes in harassment against Jewish and Muslim Americans, including on college campuses.
Aurora Berry
After the war in Gaza began, advocacy groups reported spikes in harassment against Jewish and Muslim Americans, including on college campuses.

This story contains references to sexual assault, violence against women, Islamophobic and antisemitic harassment.

When Laila Salih was preparing to move from Washington state to New York to attend Cornell, her father, like most dads, was worried about his daughter’s safety.

But he had a particular concern: Salih wears the hijab, a religious head covering worn by some Muslim women.

“I cannot in good faith send you to the other side of the country and know that you will be targeted,” Salih recalled her father saying.

Her father feared the hijab would make Salih a target for Islamophobia.

So he asked her to stop wearing it.

And she did, until the beginning of this year’s fall semester when she said she felt the hijab was finally accepted and even celebrated by non-Muslims.

“We're kind of moving forward past the 9/11 hatred and Islamophobia. And I was like, okay, cool. So, I put it back on.”

But she said after the October 7th attack on Israel, things changed.

I 100% felt the shift in energy when I stepped outside of my door that day,” Salih said. “It went from people not paying any mind to me or really caring to I walk on the bus and everyone looks at me.”

Since then Salih says she’s felt like all eyes are on her.

In November, she and some friends were filmed leaving Friday prayer services by a person she says had been seen filming pro-Palestinian protesters at rallies on campus.

She immediately worried that the video would be used to dox her.

Doxing, when a person's face, address or other personal information is shared online, has happened to some pro-Palestinian activists.

Salih feared that her name was going to be attached to hatred and bigotry that she did not abide by.

“Potentially not being able to go to a medical school because they searched up my name and the first thing they find is, oh, she's an antisemite,” she said. “When I was just walking out of Friday prayer.” 

Salih reported the incident to university police but she said she was not informed of further investigation.

The lack of response left her feeling uncertain as to whether she should have reported the incident in the first place.

“That's why I think it's so important that the university acknowledges things like this,” Salih said. “Because when they don't, students start to feel like it's not as big of a deal as it actually should be.”

Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina told WSKG that the university takes all complaints of harassment seriously and does not tolerate Islamophobia.

Harassment and violence against Muslim, Jewish and Arab people has gotten worse since the war started. For Muslim women like Salih who wear the hijab, the visibility of their religious expression can make them a target.

‘Religion tattooed on your forehead’

Salih’s face never showed up online, but that feeling of being closely observed hasn’t gone away.

This spring she took on the role of president of Cornell’s Muslim Educational and Cultural Association. She said she has heard from other women who wear the hijab who feel the same way

One of them is Maryam, a freshman at Cornell who started wearing the hijab this school year.

Maryam chose not to publicly reveal her last name because of safety concerns.

One day in April, she was walking through Collegetown, a neighborhood just off campus that is largely populated by students.

She was headed back from class with headphones on when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a man running towards her on the sidewalk.

“Then suddenly, my face was wet. My whole face was wet. My glasses were covered. I couldn’t see,” Maryam said. 

The man had spit on her. As he fled the scene, he ran into her shoulder, pushing her.

Maryam filed a police report and contacted the university.

When she told her parents about the attack, her father insisted she transfer out of Cornell.

My dad was genuinely saying, I will pull you out of that school myself,” she recounted.

Maryam said, despite the incident, she loves Cornell and wants to stay.

University president Martha Pollack released a statement that week, calling the incident “Islamophobic.”

A former Cornell master’s student, Salim Dridi was later charged with harassment, accused of spitting on Maryam. Police say they cannot confirm a motive for Dridi’s actions.

Maryam said she has been consistently disappointed with the university’s response to Islamophobia on campus since the war began.

“The administration had to wait until someone was physically assaulted for them to make a statement on Islamophobia on its own,” she said.

Arab and Muslim students have previously said the university has not done enough to protect them from harassment.

In public statements, Cornell officials publicly said that Maryam was a Muslim student and a woman but they never mentioned that she wore the hijab.

Maryam said that information would have been useful to other Muslim women on campus.

It's really difficult to walk around with your religion tattooed on your forehead like that,” she said. “Especially in the wake of such political turmoil where your religion has been associated with terrorism.”

Consequences of Visibility

In the two weeks after the war in Gaza began, advocacy groups reported spikes in harassment against Jewish and Muslim Americans.

The Anti-Defamation League reported 312 antisemitic incidents. The Council for American Islamic Relations also reported 774 Islamophobic bias incidents in that time period.

Last fall, a Cornell student was arrested and charged with making violent online threats against Jewish people on a website called Greekrank. Those included rape threats against Jewish women.

Another post on the same site targeted Muslim women. It suggested people should bring guns and “slave women in hijab” to Cornell parties.

Since women who wear the hijab are more easily identified as Muslim, they can become targets for outside resentments and stereotypes about Islam, according to Dr. Nura Sediqe, a public policy professor at Michigan State University who focuses on the Muslim American community.

“Muslim women often tend to be the frontline public image for debates, even if the debate isn't about them,” Sediqe said.

Sediqe said that feelings about Israel and Palestine are being attached to women who wear the hijab.

That’s something that Sediqe, who also wears the hijab, has experienced personally. While walking in the city, she said someone went out of their way to shout “Free Palestine” at her.

“Well, how do you know I want to free Palestine? You assumed I do,” she said. “I do. But also you just assumed it because you saw me wearing a hijab.”

Sediqe also said women who have been harassed often second-guess their experiences, fearing mislabeling an event as discrimination.

“When people experience discrimination, they internalize shame, and then they don't report it.”

She said the best practice for addressing gendered religious harassment against Muslims starts with directly involving women who wear the hijab, talking to them rather than about them.

“Enabling the agency of Muslim women themselves to have a voice for themselves in these conversations is vital,” Sediqe said.

Laila Salih, the student who was filmed leaving Friday prayers, said something as simple as empathy would go a long way for her.

“Be aware and mindful that the person sitting next to you on the bus could be directly impacted by what's going on.”

If you have experienced harassment based on your religion and gender and want to share your story, you can reach out to aberry@wskg.org.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corpsfunded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.