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Catonsville Students Wearing Hijabs Unfairly Targeted

Three students at the Community College of Baltimore County's Catonsville campus—all wearing Muslim head scarves, or hijab--were taking photos on campus for a class project one Saturday afternoon in March when two campus police cars rolled up.

The officers told the young women they had received a call about “suspicious activity” in the area, but when they found out what was really going, they just asked the women to let police know the next time they were going to do something like that.

That might have been all, there was to it, but one of the students’ parents got CAIR, the Council on Islamic American Relations, involved. And now CAIR wants to set up more discussion on campus to avoid future misunderstandings.

It started about 3:30 in the afternoon of March 30, when campus police got a call.

“The individual said, ‘There are suspicious people taking photographs behind the arts center by the gas tanks,’” said Captain Ric Puller, of the campus police. “Whoever this was even used the phrase, ‘I’m supposed to, if I see something, say something, and that’s what I’m doing.’” 

One of those “suspicious people” was Maha Hassan, a 17-year old advanced placement student at the college.

“I was taking some pictures for a photography project with my friends,” she recounted. “And as we were taking some pictures two police cars pulled up to where we were and an officer stepped out to speak to us.”

The officer, she said, asked them if they were taking pictures for a photography project.

“We said, yes, it’s for a photography project,” she said.

And the officer told them, “’Well, the next time you guys are taking pictures on the property please let us know, because you guys have scared somebody.’”

The incident might have ended there, except that Maha’s parents were upset.  Her mother, Rifat Ajmal, called the Council on American Islamic Relations, which has offices near the college, to seek support.

“My daughter, Maha, came home and she told me what happened and my husband and I, we were very upset,” she said. “And since she already told me there were a couple of incidents where she was called Isis, my husband told me that we need to do something about it.”

Zainab Chaudry, CAIR’s Maryland outreach director, reached out to county police and praised them for agreeing to work on diversity training. But she said she saw the connection between what she calls “the scarf,” and the incident.

“We do see sometimes that women are targeted in hate crimes and bias incidents because of a headscarf and they are visibly Muslim,” she said. “A friend of mine recently actually said, ‘It’s like you’re walking outside with a bull’s-eye on your head.’”

She said CAIR has been “working with a group of interfaith leaders” and the county executive’s office to launch an interfaith roundtable “to come together and form sort of a rapid response task force, so that when any faith community comes under attack other faith leaders can stand up and support.”

The Catonsville campus is one of three in Baltimore County’s community college system. Last year it had 62,000 students.  While the college does not track students by religious affiliation, officials say they have a significant number of Muslims.

Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis, the president of the Community College of Baltimore County, agreed with Chaudry about the head scarves, but had praise for the campus police officers.

“As I heard about the incident, I wasn’t surprised, because I do think that the traditional Muslim garb for women does in fact make them stand out,” she said. “But I’m very pleased with the way our public safety officers approached the women.”

On the other hand, Rifat Ajmal, Maha’s mother, saw a double standard at work when the officers told the young women to inform security if they’re going to take pictures.

“Either you tell every single student in the community college to inform us when you’re taking pictures, and if you’re not going to do that that you cannot do it to three girls who are hijabi, clearly look Muslim,” she said. “That’s clear discrimination.”

Regardless of how the officers handled things, Maha Hassan said she feels threatened, , especially when her confrontation with campus police came only two weeks after 50 people died in shootings at two mosques in New Zealand..

“For me I think the biggest thing that was said was, because you guys had scared somebody,” she said. “Because this event took place not too long after the New Zealand attacks, we have more of a reason to be scared, if anything, rather than someone else being scared. We are being threatened. Why would anybody else feel the need to be scared?”