Living in Florida, Tiffany Rivera knew there was a risk her daughter would be bullied by other kids.
“She is a black American, Muslim, and female, so she got three strikes against her,” she said of her nine-year-old girl Khadijah, an aspiring entrepreneur who also takes classes in mixed martial arts.
But Rivera could never have predicted the bullying would get this bad. She and her daughter say the kids in the trailer park residence where they live have snatched Khadijah’s headscarf off her head, made obscene gestures at her, slapped her in the face, and even threatened her with a knife.
“They throw rocks at me and call me ISIS. I don’t even know what that is,” Khadijah told Fusion in a recent phone interview. She said she was frightened to play outside now, and that she recently stopped wearing her hijab, a religious covering worn by Muslim women, because it made her a target.
Still the bullying hasn’t stopped. Rivera, who reached out to Fusion to ask that their story be told, said her daughter is speaking out to send a message of support to other Muslim American girls who are bullied for wearing the hijab at school and in their neighborhoods. “There are many Muslim girls going through what Khadijah is going through, and by speaking out she’s showing them that they are not alone,” said Rivera.
At a time of increasing Islamophobic rhetoric in American politics, Khadijah’s story is a reminder of who gets hurt when bigotry goes unchecked. A recent survey of educators by the Southern Poverty Law Center found a widespread rise in bullying, racism, and schoolyard threats against minority students, a trend many educators attributed to the rise of Donald Trump.
“They tell me to go back where I came from,” Khadijah said about the kids who pick on her. In fact she was born in Kalamazoo, Ohio, and now lives with her mother and stepfather in Orlando. Rivera said she’s been advised by neighbors to move her daughter to another city if she wants the bullying to stop, but she said she doesn’t have the money. “This is what I can only afford and this is where we are staying for the moment,” said Rivera.
She decided to homeschool Khadijah for fear of her being bullied by students at school. Little did she know it would be the neighbors’ kids who would cause trouble. Now, she said, “I try to get all the studies in so that she can play outside before the kids come home from school. She said she doesn’t allow her daughter to play outside alone without supervision anymore. “We can’t leave her outside by herself. There are boys that come up to her and slap her for no reason,” said Rivera.
Khadijah recalled one girl in the neighborhood who made obscene gestures and threatened her with a knife.
Rivera said she has called the Orange County Sheriff’s Office several times to report the abuse, and has met with deputies several times to no avail. “They say there is nothing they can do because they are minors,” she said. “So kids are allowed to abuse my daughter and nothing will be done about it.” A representative for the sheriff’s office told Fusion he could not find record of any reports filed by Rivera, and said he did not have enough information to comment on the issue.
Aside from calling the police and contacting the property management, Rivera said she tried talking to the parents of the children who are targeting her daughter, but to no avail. Some of them, she said, cited antidepressant medications as the reason for their children’s behavior. “You as a parent can not use your child’s mental illness as an excuse for what they are doing,” said Rivera.
Khadijah has a unique relationship to her hijab, having started to wear it at an early age. Girls who have not hit the age of puberty are not required to wear the hijab in Islam. But Khadijah said she feels like it’s part of her identity. “Since I was three I started wearing the hijab, because mommy wore it and I like wearing it too,” she said.
Her mother said she didn’t pressure her daughter into wearing the hijab. “I give her the freedom. That is her choice. I wanted her to feel comfortable in wearing it when she started at young age,” said Rivera. Rivera converted to Islam nearly 12 years ago after being exposed to the religion by a friend in Ohio. Her mother converted five days after she did.
After the bullying started, Khadijah took up mixed martial arts classes to be able to protect herself from kids that attack her for wearing the hijab. “If they mess with me I can protect myself,” she said.
She said she’s looking forward to celebrating Ramadan this month fasting with her family and trying to wear her hijab again.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."