Guess ISNA doesn’t do Spirit Day

I’m still on ISNA’s email list, and last Friday—which happened to be the day before National Coming Out Day, and a mere six days before Spirit Day—I got the following upbeat email:


How does it happen that an organization that says it wants to combat bullying in schools writes an anti-bullying guide that completely ignores LGBTQ students? As in, does not even mention them once? Could the authors of the guide really be so oblivious that they don’t realize that (1) there are Muslim LGBTQ students, as well as Muslim students with LGBTQ family members and/or friends, and (2) that some Muslim students engage in homophobic and transphobic bullying? (Illustration:

“October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month

Up to 1 in 3 U.S. students say they have been bullied at school. For Muslim students, the rate is at least 1 in 2 depending on the region. In recognition of this growing problem, since 9/11 ING has worked with the U.S. Department of Education, school districts, educators, and Muslim partners like the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) to address bullying prevention on two fronts: Training sessions for Muslim students and their parents on prevention and response, seminars for public school educators on working with Muslim students to ensure an inclusive environment at school. But much more needs to be done…. ING and ISNA believe that bullying is a preventable problem, especially when young people and their parents are well-informed and empowered…. [W]e are pleased to provide supplement to our INGYouth program, a new Bullying Prevention Guide for parents, educators, and community members. This Guide helps define bullying and describes bullying prevention tips for home and schools.”

I downloaded and read the Guide.

I am a parent. For one of my kids in particular,  bullying at school has been an ongoing issue. There has been Islamophobic bullying, with kids calling her “terrorist”  and so forth, because she doesn’t hide that she’s a Muslim, or where her father’s from. And also, homophobic bullying, because when she heard other students saying things such as “that’s so gay” she would object, and tell them, “My mother’s gay.”

The Guide provided some pointers for dealing with Islamophobic bullying… but nothing at all about homophobic bullying.


It did not even mention words such as “gay,” “lesbian,” or “sexual orientation” once. It never once acknowledged that some Muslim students also identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning—or that while they might not identify in any of those ways, some other students think that they do and make them the target of homophobic or transphobic bullying, or bully them because they have LGBTQ family members or friends. In the section that discussed how parents should deal with their own child being a bully, it never even hinted at the possibility that Muslim students might ever engage in homophobic or transphobic bullying.

Why this remarkable silence? It’s not as if Muslim students will never have heard the word “gay” before. Or that they would be totally unfamiliar with anti-gay slurs, or with homophobic and transphobic bullying.

Reading through the guide, I was struck by how it reflected a certain amount of change, and further advanced such changes, even. In some ways, the Guide is radical. Take for example their “steps for raising peaceful children” (meaning, children who do not bully):

“…Respect your child; if you treat your child with respect, you will have a child who will respect herself and the rights of others around her.

Do not physically or emotionally abuse your child. You cannot tell your child not to hit others if you hit your child.

Talk to your children and acknowledge their feelings. Parents who actively listen have children who are less likely to act out or engage in aggressive behavior….”

Back in the day, I can’t imagine a Muslim org being able to get away with making a blanket statement against hitting children, and if someone had tried, then some conservative know-it-all would have objected. Because hadith. But the guide doesn’t waste time trying to justify its stance against hitting children, but simply gives advice that is in line with the latest social scientific findings on the impact of spanking.

In the conservative Muslim circles I moved in, the issue wasn’t just hadiths that mention (and therefore justify) striking children, however—it was a cultural issue. Some people (my ex, for instance) had been raised in contexts where very harsh physical punishment of children by parents, neighbors and teachers was accepted as normal, and they could not see what the problem would be with spanking kids. Some converts and second generation immigrants saw spanking as a “traditional” practice that should be continued, because abandoning it meant giving into liberalism and “western” permissiveness. Most people didn’t think that trying to understand your kids was important either, because your job as a Muslim parent was to teach them how to behave and what was expected of them, not to listen to them.

Back in the day, bullying was not really discussed much in the conservative Muslim communities that I was part of. It was acknowledged that Muslim children sometimes faced bullying in public school, especially in the case of girls who wore hijab. Sometimes, this was said to be one of the justifications for why sending one’s children to a full time Muslim school was better.

But I don’t recall anyone ever admitting that bullying could be just as bad if not worse in Muslim schools. Bullying was an issue in a Muslim school my kids attended, but the teachers did little about it except tell the children off when they were particularly mean to one girl, whose name they repeatedly made fun of. Some of it was homophobic bullying, with boys picking on other boys they felt were somehow “weaker” or “less masculine,” labelling them “gay,” and mocking them. The teachers did nothing about that that I can recall. In one case, the victim ended up being the one who got blamed by his father (because being gay is haraam, don’t you know? Haven’t you heard the story of Lut?)

However, the Guide not only acknowledges that mosques as well as Muslim full-time and weekend schools can have problems with bullying, it discusses measures that can and should be taken by administrators and teachers in order to prevent it.

It is possible that the authors of the Guide felt that they had already pushed the envelope enough, so mentioning anything about LGBTQ students or homophobic or transphobic bullying would be too much for the target audience. Presumably, one can smuggle in only so many controversial ideas before a tipping point is reached, and the target audience rejects the message as too alien to its values.

Or perhaps the authors feel that vague general statements about difference cover all bases, so providing more details about what kids are often at risk of being bullied is not necessary. Except that the Guide does specifically state that ethnicity, race, religion and weight are some common reasons why some kids are bullied, so apparently specifics (even those specifics that surely anyone who went to school must know) are necessary… except when they involve, um, anything to do with… well…any term containing sex.(So the term “sexual orientation” is out.) Or anything that might complicate a simply, binary understanding of gender. Too troubling. Even including a sentence about kids with two moms or a gay brother would be offensive to some people, so better to avoid it.

But the silence speaks volumes, and kids pick up on it. They pick up on the idea that sexuality or gender identity are acceptable reasons to bully.

It may be that eventually, the Guide will be revised to  include LGBTQ people. Maybe in time to benefit my grandkids. Or more likely, my grandkids’ great-grandkids. Possibly. But I and my family can’t wait that long. Which is one of the many many reasons why I usually don’t pay attention to what such orgs do.


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  1. #1 by threekidsandi on December 11, 2014 - 4:20 am

    My mother is gay, too, and I always spoke up about it like your girl does. Good for your daughter, though I am sorry she has repercussions.
    Every time I see a gay friendly masjid open up, I get excited. It seems like a start, a bit of reason in the overwhelming currents of hate and denial I saw in the ummah over sex orientation issues. If I get near one, I am going in, even just to sit down and marvel at it. I have to. I have a list in my head: France. Canada. South Africa. DC. I am pretty certain that I will cry.

    • #2 by rosalindawijks on March 22, 2015 - 9:36 am

      Yes, alhamdulillah, the taboo on sexual diversity within Muslim communities is slowly breaking.

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