Students break boards, stereotypes during Islam Awareness Week


Pitt junior Sana Mahmood breaks the stereotype that Muslim women should dress and act in certain ways | Katie Krater, Staff Photographer

When Esra Daghestani entered public school for the first time in ninth grade, she couldn’t wait to participate in the lab portion of her physical sciences class.

Daghestani, who is Muslim and wears a hijab, spent her childhood in a combination of Syrian schooling and American-based homeschooling and had never participated in a hands-on lab before her family placed her in American public school. She was excited.

But when Daghestani’s lab partner saw her enthusiasm and apparent religion, he grew wary.

“I was telling [my lab partner] that I was looking forward to what we were doing — we were probably just mixing water and salt, it wasn’t even anything — and he was like ‘Calm down, I don’t want you to blow us up or anything,’” Daghestani said.

Daghestani said she looked up at her teacher, who was standing nearby, and asked if he’d heard the blatantly racist remark. The teacher said he had and made a comment agreeing with the student’s sentiment, according to Daghestani.

“After the initial shock, I just brushed it off and continued on,” Daghestani said. “At the time, I didn’t feel like I was able to speak up, so I didn’t say anything about it.”

As the only student in her high school who wore a hijab — which was once pulled from her head as she walked down the halls in ninth grade — Daghestani said she wanted to make Muslim friends and be part of an understanding community once she came to Pitt.  

Daghestani, a senior majoring in architectural studies, is now the vice president of Pitt’s Muslim Students Association. Along with Razan Shaker — a senior majoring in communications as well as the secretary of MSA — and the rest of the MSA board, Daghestani organized a demonstration called “Breaking Stereotypes” on Tuesday afternoon. The event, which MSA held on the lawn of the William Pitt Union, encouraged participants to write stereotypes of themselves on wooden boards and then break the boards to symbolize the shattering of stigma.

Students and faculty broke stereotypes during an event presented by the Muslim Students Association on Tuesday afternoon | Katie Krater, Staff Photographer
Students and faculty broke stereotypes during an event presented by the Muslim Students Association on Tuesday afternoon | Katie Krater, Staff Photographer

“Breaking Stereotypes” was one in a series of events MSA is holding this week as part of Islam Awareness Week, which is running from Nov. 14 to 18. Although the week of awareness comes on the heels of a heated presidential election, Daghestani said MSA did not plan the events as a reaction to the election results.

“It just so happened to fit perfectly with the backlash of the elections and the aftermath,” Daghestani said. “A lot of people have been more excited about it and definitely wanting to show their solidarity.”

In addition to the “Breaking Stereotypes” event, Islam Awareness Week includes an open discussion about the Quran — the main religious text of Islam — on Wednesday as well as a challenge to spend a day in a hijab on Thursday.

Shaker, who is a Saudi Arabian citizen and also wears a hijab, said recognizing and breaking stereotypes — both symbolically and in reality — is a step toward unifying the Pitt community.

“We just thought it would be very satisfying for us to literally break stereotypes,” Shaker said. “I think it’ll help in bringing us all together, to see each other as human beings rather than [as] your skin color or your faith.”

Catie Schrading, a sophomore environmental science major, stopped by the event when she walked by and noticed a small crowd gathered.

“People often make jokes about [stereotypes], and I think this event is spinning the hate into something positive,” Schrading said.

On Monday, the F.B.I. released a report stating that in 2015, there was a 6 percent increase in hate crimes in the United States over the previous year. Of more than 5,800 hate crimes in 2015, 257 reports were related to assaults and attacks on mosques or against Muslims, an increase of about 67 percent over 2014. The number of attacks in 2015 is the highest since 2001, when there were more than 480 attacks following Sept. 11.

Despite the increase in hate crimes against Muslims and after an initial feeling of fear following the announcement of last week’s election results, Daghestani said she now refuses to feel afraid.

“After that first day [following the election], I got determined not to be scared and that I shouldn’t be scared about it — that I don’t have a reason to be scared because I am a U.S. citizen, and I have rights, and I’m not doing anything wrong,” Daghestani said.

Daghestani said Tuesday’s demonstration highlighted a broader category beyond religious and racial stereotypes.

“It’d also be insecurities from middle school [or] high school — whenever [students] were bullied — or family insecurities,” Daghestani said. “It’s not necessarily toward religion but anything that you have insecurity toward or family issues or personal issues that you’ve always had.”

For Daghestani, her hijab serves as a visible sign of her religion, leading to constant questions about her citizenship and ancestry, particularly before she came to Pitt. Even though she — as well as her parents and grandparents — are U.S. citizens, Daghestani said she’s often asked how long she’s lived in the United States.

“[People] would want to go into, like, details of how long we’ve been here and always not being satisfied with any answer we would give them,” Daghestani said. “If I tell them that I was born and raised here, they’re like, ‘No, where are you really from?’”

As a woman who wears a hijab — Daghestani referred to herself as a “hijabi” — questions about her citizenship were often accompanied by incorrect assumptions.

“A lot of people have the misconception that — especially as a hijabi — that I’m brainwashed or controlled,” Daghestani said.

Shaker said she has also encountered this misconception, along with feelings of exclusion throughout middle and high school, when she was the only hijabi at her school.

“Thankfully, nothing bad has ever happened to me,” Shaker said. “But over here [at Pitt], I really do feel at home, and it’s a good place to be, I think. It’s a safe place for me.”

David Sokulski, 48, of South Side came to the event after hearing about it through Facebook because he doesn’t want others to stereotype him as a Trump supporter. Sokulski said he worries about people assuming this because he is a white man.

“Anyone who sees me, what will they think of me?” Sokulski said. “After the last election, it’s embarrassing for me to be a white man.”

For Sokulski, the negative stereotypes that accompany his appearance have made him want to change the way he looks — which often isn’t an option for other stereotyped groups, including Muslim women like Shaker and Daghestani.

“I’m not a Christian [or a] Trump supporter,” Sokulski said. “It makes me want to dye my hair pink just so people don’t think of me that way.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misidentified Sana Mahmood in the caption of the first photo. The caption has been updated to reflect Mahmood’s correct name. The Pitt News regrets this error.