A few days ago, my kindergartner came up to me and, as usual, relayed the happenings of her day. I patiently listened to her stories as I prepared dinner, until she started to tell one that demanded more immediate attention. “Mommy,” she said, “Kayla told Emma today that she is ugly, but Rachel and I told Emma she is beautiful and that we needed to have a talk with Kayla.” “Wow,” I thought to myself. “Does it really start this early?”
HEART Women & Girls was recently contacted by a 5th grade Islamic school teacher who distributed a survey to her students, asking them about the challenges they face in their day-to-day routine. Shockingly, two-thirds of the sixth grade girls and a little less than half of the fifth grade girls complained of “bullying” as a specific problem they struggle with.
Unfortunately, these girls are not alone. As HEART continues its discussions with educators and administration in Islamic schools, the issue of bullying is becoming increasingly apparent, calling for more urgent attention. In a recent workshop targeting fifth through eighth grade girls at a local Islamic school, we learned that more than 75% of these girls identify bullying as a major issue at their school. Moreover, the problem was not exclusive to relationships between boys and girls, but prevalent within same-gender interactions as well.
So, what’s going on with our youth? According to studies presented in My Body, My Self, 75% of girls aged eight to 10 years and 81% of 11 and 12-year-old girls expressed concern about fitting in with their peers. It seems then that most pre-teen girls share the same insecurities and anxieties about who they are and how they assimilate into the larger group. Yet, many of these girls feel the need to protect themselves from this realization, and resort to bullying and teasing others in order to feel empowered. Although many of them may have experienced the terror of victimization, they still seize every opportunity they can to torment others.
As HEART’s surveys and workshops in area Islamic schools indicate, harassment between peers is so rampant and far-reaching that even private Muslim schools, where most share the same faith, customs and values, are no exception. One Islamic school educator told us of a girl who received several emails from a classmate suggesting that she “kill herself because she was fat and ugly.” What’s more unfortunate is that the school did not have the proper staff or programs in place to address it effectively. This concept of “cyber-bullying” has led to disturbing trends, where emails, chat messages and other types of social media platforms are used to bully and condemn another girl. With a simple click of a button, a humiliating picture or a hateful email can circulate throughout an entire student body, and, within a few seconds, haunt a girl for the duration of her academic career. We can attribute this brutality to the omnipresence of technology and the increased distortions of beauty standards reinforced by an overly sexualized media.
The need for our girls to meet narrowly defined and stringent standards of beauty and to feel accepted by their peers has had some very serious, unhealthy consequences. Those who bully are more likely to engage in antisocial and delinquent behavior as adults, while the bullied have increased feelings of fear and anxiety that affect their levels of concentration and self-worth and often persist throughout their lifetime, leading to social isolation. According to the DOVE Self-Esteem Fund, “Self-esteem has an effect on every aspect of a person’s life. When girls and women feel good about themselves, they are more likely to engage in life, enjoy social interactions, and live up to their full potential.” On the other hand, when girls do not feel good about themselves, or are anxious about what people will think about them, they are less likely to participate in class, take leadership roles, and take a healthy risk of trying new activities.
It is imperative for us to stand up against bullying and empower our girls to unite and learn from each other’s strengths, rather than delight in each other’s apparent weaknesses. Many public schools today have taken a zero-tolerance policy stance on bullying – a short-sighted approach that may reduce bullying on school grounds, but does not address the problem of the bully him/herself, who can continue to harass in unsupervised venues. While there is not one easy solution to eliminate bullying from our girls’ lives, schools can employ a variety of strategies, including increased monitoring where bullying is expected (bathrooms, playgrounds, etc), reducing unsupervised time students have during the school day, and offering teachers training sessions on how to effectively address bullying. Most importantly, adopting self-esteem or character-building programs into the school curriculum is often very effective in building leadership and camaraderie in the school.
While parents send their children to Islamic schools with the hope of acquiring religious knowledge in addition to secular knowledge, it is important to remember that most schools – public or private – do not incorporate self-esteem courses into their regular curriculum. Consequently, it is crucial for parents to supplement their child’s education with character and self-esteem building activities, through continued and open conversation, as well as structured classes. More importantly, parents should keep in mind that bullying is not any less extreme in Islamic schools where the student body is more culturally and religiously homogenous.
Bullying should not be an issue in any community, Muslim or otherwise. Our basic value as human beings is that we treat others as we want to be treated, and I was sure to emphasize this to my kindergartner when she told me about her friend Emma. I know that this was but the first of many conversations I am to have with her as she continues to encounter these situations. However, my genuine belief is that by continuing the dialogue and making a concerted effort to understand the environment in which our daughters are growing up, we will be taking a crucial step toward raising confident girls who stand up against what is wrong.
(Photo: v i p e z)
Nadiah is co-founder and director of programs for the HEART Women & Girls project. She recently earned her Masters in Public Health from the University of Illinois at Chicago. in the past she has been a consultant for the Office on Women’s Health (OWH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services working on a variety of different projects focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness, American Indian/Alaska Native Health, and improving the health of Chicago. Prior to her work at the OWH, she worked on a research project focusing on improving the pregnancy outcomes of low-income Chicago women. She earned her bachelor degree in Public Policy Studies from University of Chicago and lives in Chicago with her two children and husband. Additionally, Nadiah is the Program Manager for American Muslim Health Professionals.