Sireen Hashem, a high school teacher in New Jersey, has been fired for having the audacity to teach history and current events while Muslim.
Hashem, who describes herself as a “Muslim American of Palestinian descent,” filed a lawsuit against Hunterdon Central Regional High School on Dec. 14, claiming in short that she was fired for teaching the same curriculum as her white counterparts, who received no reprimand.
The curriculum in question? Namely, a video of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. That’s right. Teaching students about a girl who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban, and who has gone on to earn one of the highest honors in the world by fighting for the right of children — especially young girls — to receive an education.
Lindsay Wagner, a fellow teacher at the school, had shown her students a video about Yousafzai and her advocacy. At Wagner’s suggestion, Hashem showed the same video to her own students. Complaints from parents and administrators about Hashem’s airing of the video came almost immediately, although there was no concern about Wagner doing the same.
According to Hashem’s suit, “[Principal] Suzanne Cooley received a complaint from the parent of a student about Plaintiff’s use of the Malala Yusufzai video during a lesson.” The suit goes on to state that Hashem’s supervisor told her “that she could not teach current events in the same manner as her non-Arab, non-Palestinian and non-Muslim colleagues.”
It wasn’t just the principal who made such obviously racist comments. Hashem says that during a meeting she brought it to the attention of district superintendent Cristina Steffner that her coworker played “the same video and it was not a problem.” According to the suit, the response was sickening:“Defendant Steffner slammed her hand on the table and said, ‘You are not Lindsay.’ Unlike Plaintiff, Lindsay Wagner is not Arab, not Palestinian and not Muslim.”
“Defendant Steffner slammed her hand on the table and said, ‘You are not Lindsay.’ Unlike Plaintiff, Lindsay Wagner is not Arab, not Palestinian and not Muslim.”
Other parents later complained about Hashem’s participation in a classroom discussion regarding a question commonly used by history teachers across the U.S., “compare the actions of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry to the actions of Osama bin Laden on September 11, 2001.”
Students then decided to begin harassing Hashem online. One parent, who naturally had complained about Hashem previously, posted statuses on Facebook claiming that Hashem was anti-Israel, that she was teaching anti-Semitic views in the classroom, and that her brother was a terrorist.
These false accusations on social media prompted another meeting with school administrators. According to the suit, this time they “accused her of discriminating against Jewish students, and also questioned her about her place of birth, her family, and her personal life.”
Allegedly, Hashem was given a list of topics she was not to discuss or mention in her classroom. These topics included her cultural background, her religious background, Islam and the Middle East. You know, subjects that obviously have no place being taught in a history class, given current events. (*Ahem, sorry, the sarcasm was so thick, I choked a little.)
According to Hashem, “A local Rabbi and several parents contacted the high school administration, including Defendants Cooley and Steffner, and Defendant Board of Education in an attempt to have Plaintiff removed from her teaching position, solely because of her heritage and religion.”
Even after she was no longer employed by the school district, the ordeal was not over. The lawsuit claims FBI agents showed up at her door claiming it had been reported that Hashem made the threat “they will be sorry if she is fired.” Hashem denies saying anything of the sort.
Omar Mohammedi, Hashem’s attorney, says he is especially disgusted by the visit from the FBI. “They not only get rid of her and dismiss her unlawfully, but then they call the FBI on her?” he said. “It’s an outrage.”
Mohammedi says these claims of retaliation were made not out of fear, but out of spite. “Because of who she is, they knew they could do whatever they want,” said Mohammedi. “They knew the FBI would respond because being a part of that world you’re an easy target.”
Not everyone is against Hashem though. Some of her former students have stepped up to defend her online. “Hunterdon Central lost an amazing teacher over false comments a student in my class made,” one student wrote. “Her firing was a huge mistake and any school who hires her next should consider themselves lucky.”
Featured image via screengrab