In November 2018, Sumaiya Zama was walking to her car in Quincy when she realized she was being followed. The man following her had seen her hijab and was yelling Islamophobic slurs at her. She rushed to her car, terrified, and decided to change her route in the future to avoid running into him again.
This wasn’t the first time Zama had been harassed because of her religion in Massachusetts, where she’s lived her whole life. Zama, who always wears a hijab, has a habit of checking her surroundings.
Hate crimes and harassment targeting Muslims happen regularly in the state, evidenced in a new report released Wednesday from the Massachusetts branch of The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights advocacy organization where Zama works.
The report states that CAIR-Massachusetts received 232 requests in 2018 for legal assistance for civil rights cases related to harassment, hate crimes, travel abuses and discrimination in employment, housing, and education — a slight increase from the account of similar cases in 2017.
The 2018 cases include a 72-year-old woman who had her hijab ripped off at a park in Braintree, a young woman wearing a hijab being yelled at to “go back where you came from” in a parking lot in Easton, and a family being verbally assaulted from a passing car as they were entering their mosque in Wayland.
“I think most people in Massachusetts who are not Muslim or directly involved with the Muslim community probably have no idea how often these ugly incidents happen,” said Barbara Dougan, the civil rights director of CAIR-Massachusetts, who authored the report. “I think it’s important for residents of Massachusetts, law enforcement and elected officials to see what’s actually happening out there.”
Zama is the director of community advocacy and education for CAIR-Massachusetts, and works with students and teachers around the state to address Islamophobia in schools. She says the state has a lot of work to do in addressing Islamophobia.
“Massachusetts is thought of as a very liberal space, but there is a lot of xenophobia and Islamophobia here,” said Zama. “I’ve seen that in my personal experiences navigating everyday life here. This fear strikes us in our daily lives as we wake up in the morning and decide to leave our home.”
Massachusetts is not alone. Hate crimes continue to rise across America, particularly those targeting racial, ethnic or religious groups, according to the FBI. Muslim groups have felt increased levels of harassment and violence, but civil rights groups such as the ACLU and CAIR believe the numbers presented by the FBI underestimate the full extent of problem.
“Communities worry that law enforcement will report them to immigration enforcement or the FBI for little or no reason — even when they are U.S. citizens. For some, it may feel like there is no safe place to turn,” Manar Waheed, legislative and advocacy counsel for the ACLU of Massachusetts, wrote in a December 2018 post to their website.
Zama said that each of the hundreds of Muslim students she works with has either experienced harassment themselves or has a parent or friend who has been affected. She said CAIR-Massachusetts has seen a particularly high incident rate in the South Shore, and particularly in Quincy, where Zama had her own scary experience in 2018. Zama says Muslim women having their hijabs grabbed or torn off was so common in Quincy that people weren’t even reporting it.
“There’s nothing normal about being physically assaulted,” she added. She said her organization is working with Quincy residents to address their high incident rate.
And the consequences are more than skin-deep, says Dougan.
“A lot of folks who may have felt like they were safe and assimilated may think these sorts of hate crimes happen to somebody else,” Dougan said. “After an incident like this, their sense of belonging and security is really shattered.”
Zama said while micro-aggressions and assaults are common, there always looms the threat of greater violence, like the recent terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, where 50 Muslims were killed during Friday prayer by a white nationalist suspect.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Zama said. “The world is constantly shifting and I’m trying to think of how to best prepare our young people for this kind of world.”
Zama said it’s important to remember that Massachusetts has a lot of work to do to make it a truly safe space for Muslim Americans.
“As a youth worker, I inherently have a sense of optimism,” Zama said. “Especially working with the Muslim community in Massachusetts, I feel like young people are going to know exactly what it is that they need in order to create the world that they want. And we’re seeing that already.”