Students divided over free speech, Islam at Hijab-a-Thon

It was intended to be a peaceful event to educate students on Islam and the meaning of the hijab, a traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women, but by the end of the afternoon it was an all-out impassioned debate about freedom of speech and religion.

This was March 21, the Tuesday of the second annual Islam Awareness Week, hosted by Muslim Students of the University of Miami (MSUM). The organization was holding a Hijab-a-thon event, where students could try on hijabs and learn about the significance of the garb.

About 100 students visited the table on the Lakeside Patio, trying on hijabs of different styles, colors and textures. MSUM members supplied the fabric, which students could keep, and assisted the men and women who stopped by in putting them on.

The mood at the event took a turn around 1 p.m., when a man approached the table and told the Muslim women wearing hijabs to “tone it down” and not make others uncomfortable.

Sasha Baranov, associate justice for the Supreme Court of Student Government, said the unidentified man told the students that if people felt threatened by the hijab, Muslim women should make an effort not to wear them.

“I thought that was an inappropriate statement to make because, as a Jewish man, you don’t tell a Jewish person to stop wearing a yamaka or a kippah, as a gay man you won’t tell me to stop wearing my LGBTQ pride stuff,” Baranov said. “I think telling someone to tone down does not ultimately fix the problem, it just exacerbates it, because it tells people that they are less-than and they have to hide it.”

Though the hijab has been characterized by critics as a tool of oppression, MSUM president Aya Eltantawy said it is perceived differently by the women who wear it. 

“It’s actually a form of empowerment for us,” she said. “That’s kind of the end goal of today, to have people empathize and walk a mile in a Muslim woman’s scarf.”

For MSUM members, including former president Rowanne Ali, that interaction was a reminder of why they hosted a Hijab-a-thon in the first place.

“You’re telling me to tone down who I am and to essentially stop being Muslim so I am palatable to you,”Ali said. “At the end of the day, that doesn’t fix the problem, it doesn’t fix Islamophobia. The right question we should be asking is why people are feeling this way in the first place and how we can fix that.”

The incident was the first confrontation during Islam Awareness Week, according to MSUM members, but it would not be the last.

On the same day as the Hijab-a-Thon, junior Sarah Samuels hosted a “counter information session.” More than 100 students had something to say about her stance when she posted on Facebook about her event over spring break. She wrote that her event aimed to show “what it’s really like to be a woman of Islam.” With approval from the university, Samuels set up a table in the Breezeway and handed out pamphlets about the issues in Islam and Muslim-majority countries. She declined an interview at the event.

In another public Facebook post on March 19, Samuels said she received “hatred and anger“ in response to the event and “would not remain silent to satisfy those who wish to dominate the conversation.” She said that one student contacted her about discussing Islam in a constructive way, and she invited others to stop by the Breezeway table for a “civil discussion.”

Tabling with her was Driena Sixto, a Florida International University student and field director of the South Florida chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative grassroots non-profit.

“We understand that they want to bring light to getting rid of stereotypes about all Muslims, which I think is great, but the religion as a whole needs reformation,” Sixto said in an interview. “Unfortunately, the majority of the people who practice it have very archaic beliefs and practices that go against individual rights and freedoms.”

Sixto said she wanted to focus on issues such as child brides, female genital mutilation and honor killings. Samuels had mentioned the same three topics in a phone interview with The Miami Hurricane over the weekend.

During the event, Sixto and Samuels also spoke about banning Islam from the United States until the religion was reformed.

Baranov approached their table after he participated in Hijab-a-Thon. He spoke to Samuels about her opinions on Islam but also asked for her thoughts on hate speech.

“The rights to free speech are fundamental, and unless you’re violating people’s rights through inciting violence, I support your right to free speech,” Samuels told him. “Who determines what’s hate speech? It’s always for people who don’t hold a popular opinion.”

Heated debate grew around the table, with at least 40 students hovering around the action at one point. Administrators and plainclothes UM police officers lingered in the area to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. Videos circulating social media showed passionate exchanges between the tablers and both Muslim and non-Muslim students, everyone asking pointed questions and pulling up supporting evidence.

Below is a video taken by one of the students confronting the tablers. Sixto also took a video during this encounter of a student’s response to the accusation that Islam condones violence against women.

Arjun Padmanabhan, one of the students speaking with Sixto in the video above reacted later on social media.

“Whether or not both sides are listening to each other is another matter entirely,” said Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Ricardo Hall, who was in attendance. “All you can really ask for is dialogue. In that regard, conversations have begun and that’s a first step to understanding and getting along.”

“If you can’t have open dialogue of opposing or even agreeing views on a college campus, where in the world can you have it?” he said. “Our students are demonstrating what a truly inclusive campus is. Inclusion doesn’t mean we’re open to just one view or one prevailing view or way of thought. Inclusion means you are open to everyone, it is an appropriate form to air out all your differences.”

Students like Baranov, while still debating, helped Samuels keep her signs and pamphlets from blowing away in the breeze. MSUM members walked over from the Hijab-a-Thon and gave Sixto and Samuels pamphlets, which they took and said they would read.

The crowd lasted well until 4 p.m., at which point Student Government and other administrators asked them to disperse.

Davin Laskin, a junior majoring in economics, said he knew Samuels because she was starting a chapter of Turning Point USA and he was starting a chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, a partner organization. One major platform they have in common is promoting free speech.

“Free speech on college campuses: it’s not here so you can talk about your grades, so you can talk about the weather, it’s so you can talk about controversial things and bring up controversial ideas,” Laskin said. “It’s important to have spirited debates on controversial issues.”

The events for Islam Awareness Week will go on as planned, though Tuesday was an eye-opener for students in MSUM.

“We have definitely become more realistic about the world we live in because it’s forced us to take a step back and say, ‘If we are putting on Islamic-related events, anything related to the religion, it will receive some sort of backlash,’” said Nabiha Khakoo, secretary of MSUM.