Yes, it really starts this early

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.

1 Comment

  • Iftikhar says:

    Multiculturalism is not about separation, ghettoisation or balkanisation. It is, instead, a recognition of both diversity and the need for common ground, mutual respect,and cultural engagement.

    That was indeed the typical British bullshit any immigrant have had thrown on their face.

    What the immigrants ask is not just social benefit and money from the government, but more human interaction and being respected as fellow human-beings. Hell if I can get more of these at the expense of paying more tax, I’d even do that. The sense of belonging doesn’t come from money or other materialistic factors for that matter. How about treating people equally? For example like saying hi when walking past each other on streets instead of exclaiming “you steal our jobs”; or NOT rejecting a job applicant for being Asian/Mideast/African/Slavic? The sense of respect stems from the small gestures of people, the way they greet you and wants to know you as a person. Then again I can’t blame the Brits cos they don’t even show much intimacy towards each other.

    It is easy to say” Go back to where you came from”,but do not forget that British Muslims are actually born and educated here. They are in the unenviable position of trying to combine two diffent worlds. That is no easy.

    A report by the Institute for Community Cohesion found that native parents were deserting some schools after finding their children out numbered by pupils from ethnic minorities. Schools in parts of England are becoming increasingly segregated. The study focused on 13 local authorities. Many of the schools and colleges are segregated and this was generally worsening over recent years. This is RACISM because British society is the home of institutional racism.

    It is not just Muslims that feel isolated, it is also other faiths. I do not want to name any, but any religious person is bound to feel at odds with the society in which he lives, as each religion has its own habits and customs. Even Protestants feel at odds with the Catholic communities in Catholic countries and vice versa. I am sure that the Protestant expats living in the South of France or Spain (both Catholic communities) feel at odds in their environment. People should try to understand the minority communities. As I said before, it is better to let everyone have their own space, instead of interfering and seeing people of different faiths and cultures as a threat

    God has created diverse human beings to live in this tiny global villageas of one family. Creation by its very nature is deverse with different species, different communities, different cultures and languages. These differences represent the beauty and wonder but diversity is sometimes not fully appreciated, resulting in all sorts of clashes. The British society and Establishment must learn to respect and accommodate others, as if in a family.

    The western values suggest equality and freedom for all, that means society must allow religious freedom. The Jews and Christians have Kosher meat and Church schools, yet when Muslims simply ask for the very same teatment. the Islamphobic secular right wing jump up and down, screaming that somehow western values have been attacked. Last year, during protests against the attack on Gaza, a mixed group of demonstrators clashed with police. But when the alleged culprits were arrested in dawn raids, nearly all those taken were young Muslims

    Sharia courts are for Muslim community not for any body else. The Jews through out Europe have their own religious courts. Similarly state funded Muslim schools are for Muslim children. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.

    Bilingual Muslim children need bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. A bilingual teacher has the ability to teach bilingually and explain complex concepts to children who have limited understanding of English. Learning in their first language ‘raises their self-esteem, self-respect and strengthens their identities in western culture.

    A report has found that bilingual children are far more likely to get top-grades pass in all subjects. Too many schools miss out on the opportunity to ensure bilingual pupils develop their skills in languages other then English. Children using first language other than English have a some important academic advantages as this bilingualism enables children to develop cognitively. It can also improve ‘intercultural understanding’.

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