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Female Muslim student is assaulted in Commons

This is a developing story.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County students received the second crime alert of the Fall 2021 semester on Wednesday, November 17, alerting them to a hate-bias incident that occured on Tuesday, Nov. 16. The incident occurred slightly before 7 p.m. in the Commons, where a male person physically assaulted a female Muslim student by attempting to pull off her hijab. Currently, UMBC police are investigating the assault and are actively looking for the perpetrator.

Much of the UMBC community was appalled by the alert. UMBC President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski said in a letter sent out on Thursday, “Hate and bias are counter to UMBC values, especially our community’s deep commitment to diversity and inclusion and welcoming people of all backgrounds.” 

For the Muslim Student Association, the incident came just as much of a surprise.

“It was really shocking,” sophomore Biology major and MSA Events Coordinator Iman Ahmed said. “We didn’t expect this kind of situation to happen on a campus that pushes for diversity and generally promotes a safe space for everyone.”

Much of MSA described how traumatizing a hate-bias incident like a hijab being torn off can be.

“When we wear the hijab, it gives us a sense of control over ourselves and how other people see us,” explained the MSA Publicity Director, who preferred not to have their name printed. “So, when somebody pulls off a person’s hijab, it’s the most humiliating experience. We lose control and feel exposed and violated and dehumanized.” 

For those not of Muslim faith, the MSA Publicity Director related that removing someone’s hijab equates to tearing off a woman’s shirt or her skirt. No matter the simile, the forceful removal of a hijab is assault and, for the MSA, is something they did not expect to occur at UMBC. 

Part of MSA’s high regard for UMBC’s tolerance stems from the relatively high proportion of hijabi women seen around campus. Freshman Biology major and MSA Freshman Representative Maryam Higazi believed that this high exposure of hijabs to the non-Muslim student population would have fostered more acceptance from UMBC students. However, as the Nov. 16 incident revealed, this is not the case.

Some MSA members point to the fact that UMBC administration did not factor in their needs for prayer space into the new Wellness Center’s Gathering Space for Spiritual Well-Being as further signs that UMBC is not as inclusive as it believes itself to be. To Higazi, the difficulty MSA has met with getting a prayer space that accommodates all five of their daily prayers shows that the Nov. 16 incident is just part of a pattern of intolerance towards Muslims at UMBC.

“I’ve seen how some of the administrators here and some students treat Muslim students in not giving us adequate prayer space,” Higazi said. “I just wouldn’t say [Nov. 16] was a singular incident.”

Senior Media and Communications and MSA Events Coordinator Maryam Tori did say that UMBC’s Initiatives for Identity, Inclusion & Belonging (i3b) staff, particularly Director of Inclusive Excellence & Initiatives for i3b Jasmine Lee, have been working with MSA since September to extend the Gathering Space for Spiritual Well-Being’s hours. Lee explained that the space’s closing time was extended to 10 p.m. to accommodate the later prayers. Currently, Lee and MSA are still working to make the space available for all five Muslim prayer times.

“I think that this incident emphasizes why we need a prayer space and a safe space for Muslim students,” Tori said.

Whether or not i3b gets the Gathering Space for Spiritual Well-Being’s hours extended, the MSA simply asks that UMBC Police conduct a thorough investigation and that the assault’s perpetrator faces consequences.

“I’m hoping this investigation will end as it should,” Ahmed said. “Someone who committed a hate crime should go to jail for their actions and that should set a precedent for how UMBC handles these incidents.”

So far, UMBC Police is keeping MSA in the loop on the investigation as much as privacy protection allows. 

The fact that there was a report to investigate at all is encouraging to Lee, who is proud of the courage and bravery of the student that reported the incident and encourages students to speak out if anything similar happens to them

“I’m proud of her for reporting it and I want to encourage our students to utilize the avenues that are available on our campus,” Lee said.

Besides reporting incidents to i3b, the Office of Equity and Inclusion or the UMBC Police, Lee encourages students to seek out other spaces that make them feel welcome and safe. For Muslim students seeking to gather and express their concerns, a Community Care Gathering was hosted Monday, Nov. 22 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in room 103 of the Center for Well-Being. In addition, the MSA encourages students to voice their concerns to them and get involved in pushing for more safe spaces for Muslim students on campus.

In regards to the investigation, UMBC Police asks that anyone with information call 410-455-5555.