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Behind Burqa, Student Gets an Education in Bigotry

Behind Burqa, Student Gets an Education in Bigotry
Comments Directed At Muslims
By TRACY GORDON FOX, Courant Staff Writer

COLCHESTER — Caitlin Dean was raised not to discriminate against others because of their race or religion. But as a white suburban teen of Italian and Irish descent, she often wondered what it would be like to be the target of such abuse.

She found out “behind the burqa.” The 15-year-old freshman volunteered with a few other students to wear traditional Muslim clothing to school for an entire day in February after a Middle Eastern Studies teacher at Bacon Academy announced that she was looking for students to promote her class by wearing the garb. Caitlin covered her slender frame and short brown hair with a periwinkle burqa, which concealed her face.

The hateful and abusive comments she endured that day horrified teachers, the teen and many of her classmates. The remarks underscored a persistent animosity toward American Muslims that is driven largely by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But they also opened up an important dialogue that could help teenagers in Colchester and across the state view the Muslim culture differently.

“Hey, we rape your women!” one upperclassman said as he passed Caitlin in the hallway.

“I hope all of your people die,” another sniped.

“You’re probably going to kill us all” and “Why do they let people like this in the country?” were other remarks she heard on Feb. 1.

Caitlin’s observations that day did not surprise those who work for the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which arrived in the state about three years ago in response to hate crimes and prejudice against Muslims.

Caitlin wrote down 50 comments and names she was called. She did not respond because “I am a freshman. I like to avoid making waves.”

But when she saw a friend and a teacher who knew that Caitlin was the person under the burqa, she broke down in a classroom.

“I started crying,” Caitlin said. “There is way too much prejudice.”

The lack of understanding of Islam and of the many of the cultures that contribute to a worldwide population of more than 1 billion Muslims is something Rabia Chaudry, a spokeswoman for CAIR, planned to raise with the state Department of Education when she meets with officials in a few weeks.

Now she plans to use Colchester as a positive example in terms of discussing prejudice and raising awareness of the Muslim culture.

“I think what this teacher has done is exactly what schools should be doing,” Chaudry said.

None of the students were singled out for discipline because no formal complaints were made.

“It’s unacceptable,” Superintendent Karen Loiselle said. “It’s imperative students who are victims of those comments report them immediately and it will be taken very seriously. In this case, it has opened an important conversation.”

Chaudry agreed and said her group would like to send representatives to meet with students in Colchester and other communities, to hold town meetings to talk about their feelings about Muslims, the war and terrorism.

At Bacon Academy, the experience has already made a difference. Teacher Angie Parkinson, who had only 12 students enrolled in her Middle Eastern Studies classes for next year, now has 48.

A partial list of the comments to Caitlin – some were not printable – appeared in the student newspaper, the Bacon Courier, along with a front-page story headlined, “Some at Bacon Fail the Test of Tolerance.”

Caitlin called it “The Girl Behind the Burqa.”

In the days that followed, teachers and students at Bacon Academy discussed tolerance of other cultures. There was already a Gay- Straight Alliance at the school with some openly gay members, a save Darfur group and a diversity committee.

Chris Anderson, a senior at Bacon who also wore some of the traditional Muslim clothing to school and also was the target of ethnic slurs, said educators are not trying hard enough to expose students to other cultures. He criticized school leaders for replacing world studies in middle school with more American history.

“The prejudice displayed at Bacon Academy is proof enough that education about world cultures cannot be ignored,” he said. “The misunderstood are feared and hated.”

Chaudry said she is not surprised to hear how some students reacted to the burqas and other Middle Eastern outfits.

“I wear a regular head scarf and I get those reactions in public as well. I think people are confusing terrorists with Muslims,” she said. “They don’t understand the distinction because they don’t understand the religion.”

Parkinson, who has traveled to the Middle East and wants to participate in a teacher exchange with Saudi Arabia, said she is on a mission to have other cultures, particularly those in the Middle East, better represented in school curriculums.

“That happens to be my personal crusade,” she said. “And I think we should start it sooner. It should be taught in elementary school.

“My fear of this hatred of Islam is that it will become synonymous with patriotism,” Parkinson said. “We are a nation of immigrants. Some of the most disturbing comments were, `This is America. Go home.'”

In her class, Parkinson spends weeks explaining the history of the Middle East before she broaches the Iraq war.

“It takes weeks and weeks to understand the background,” Parkinson said.

There are plenty of examples of other incidents around the state that have not led to productive discussions, including a Muslim boy in New Haven County who was beaten up and called Osama Bin Laden, Chaudry said.

Many other incidents go unreported, she said. “I think a lot of times, [Muslims] just internalize it and go on.”




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