Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum (MAWPF) and Many Languages One Voice (MLOV) calls on DC Public Library to address Islamophobia and harassment

Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), Muslim American Women’s Policy (MAWPF), and Many Languages One Voice (MLOV) are deeply disturbed by the removal of a Muslim woman wearing the hijab (headscarf) at Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library by a library officer on March 23rd, and we are disappointed with the DC Public Library’s failure to address the incident in the context of growing Islamophobia and harassment against Muslim Americans. Our collective organizations work locally in the District for social justice. CASS is a grassroots organization working to make public spaces safer for everyone through advocacy, workshops, and trainings that help our community feel empowered to speak out against street harassment. MAWPF is a collective of Muslim women organizers and allies who work to address issues at the intersection of gender-based violence, Islamophobia, and state violence for Muslim women in the District. MLOV is a local grassroots organization that advocates for immigrant communities and fosters leadership and facilitates community-led inclusion of immigrants in the District.

On March 23, 2016 at 2pm, Jessica Raven, CASS’s Executive Director, witnessed an officer with the DC Public Library harass and intimidate a woman, threatening them with handcuffs for refusal to remove the hijab.  The library officer, Officer Craggette, then told the woman to either remove the hijab or leave the library. The woman left the premises.

Raven, who was sitting with her toddler on her lap at a computer about one foot away, reported the incident to the manager on staff, wrote down the name of the officer from the name badge on his chest, and left the library shaking with fear, anger, and sadness. Outside, she approached the woman who had been harassed to show support and to ask the woman if she wanted to report the incident.

The woman did not want to make a report or share their identity at that moment. Therefore, as advocates we are requesting the DC Public Library and other institutions respect the choice of the individual, and if they decide to come forward in the future, it should be their choice. The onus is not on individuals who experience harassment to report it; it is the responsibility of the DC Public Library to prevent harassment and discrimination by developing proactive solutions to make the library system safe for everyone. While taking direction from individuals directly impacted in individual cases is important, when an act of discrimination takes place publicly by individuals affiliated with or on behalf of public institutions, it is important for us to demand institutional responsibility that ensures that communities aren’t discriminated from using public facilities due to their real or perceived racial identity, religious identity, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

In referring to this blatant act of discrimination against a Muslim woman as “an isolated incident,” the DC Public Library’s Executive Director minimizes the context of growing Islamophobia. This is not an isolated incident, but it is also not contained to the DC Public Library.

Therefore, as groups working towards community and institutional accountability for racism, Islamophobia, public harassment, and other forms of oppression and violence, we believe it’s imperative to hold institutions accountable in actively addressing Islamophobia, racism, and patriarchy as institutional forms of violence. Discrimination and harassment against individuals due to their racial, religious, ethnic, and/or gender identity is violence rooted in restricting access to public spaces for targeted communities.

When a Muslim woman is removed from the DC Public Library and threatened with handcuffs for wearing a hijab by a library officer, it sends a community-wide message to Muslim women in the District that they do not have access to public institutions such as libraries because of their visible Muslim identity.  When individuals associated and connected with public institutions engage in such acts of violence, it further enables institutional Islamophobia and emboldens bigotry, hate violence, and discrimination at the interpersonal level.

Therefore, we urge DC institutions to examine and strengthen their institutional procedures and responses to address discrimination and harassment, particularly against Muslim communities. Here are our recommendations to address this problem:

  1. Develop a public awareness campaign to demonstrate that the DC Public Library is a safe and welcoming space for people of all racial, ethnic, religious, and gender identities.
  2. Implement an accessible system to report cases of bias, discrimination, harassment, and bullying by DC Public Library staff and officers.
  3. Expand current diversity training to directly address anti-black racism and Islamophobia.
  4. Convene a joint DC government Listening Session that invites Muslim communities, which includes all various ethnicities and racial groups to discuss ways they experience discrimination, bias, racism, and Islamophobia in the District.

Finally, we have remaining questions after this incident:

  1. What is the District doing to ensure DC institutions are addressing Islamophobia against Muslim communities at a moment of heightened violent political rhetoric and state-sanctioned Islamophobia against Muslim communities, especially Muslim women?
  2. What are some institutional ways DC’s public library will handle cases of bias, discrimination, harassment, and bullying by DCPL staff and private security officers?
  3. How are complaints of harassment/violence by DCPL staff, MPD police, and private security officers investigated, documented, and addressed?
  4. How are private security officers and companies held accountable? What type of police powers, if any, do they have?
  5. What is the role of MPD in training or supporting private security officers in the District?
  6. Has there been a review, hearing, or listening sessions with DC youth on MPD officers and private security officers’ presence and exact role in places of learning such as playgrounds, schools, colleges and libraries?
  7. What are ways bystanders can intervene and report incidents of bias, discrimination, and Islamophobia, so directly impacted individuals aren’t burdened with reporting?
  8. What is the status of training library officers and library staff on issues pertaining to civil rights and DC human rights violations?
  9. Are there mandated trainings for library officers and staff on addressing institutional racism and Islamophobia? Who’s trained? Who does the training?
  10. How can the recently passed NEAR Act be expanded to include specific training regarding institutional racism and Islamophobia?

Islamophobia, also referred to as anti-Muslim racism, flourishes because of societal and institutional complicity. In an escalating environment of racism towards Muslims or those racialized and perceived as Muslim, it is important that District institutions take proactive measures to make public spaces safe for everyone.

Darakshan Raja, Co-Founder
Muslim American Women’s Policy Forum

Jessica Raven, Executive Director
Collective Action for Safe Spaces

Sapna Pandya, Executive Director
Many Languages One Voice

Supporting Organizations
Hollaback! Baltimore
Younger Women’s Task Force: Baltimore Chapter
DC Rape Crisis Center
Price of Silence
Showing Up for Racial Justice
Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, DC
National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum
Washington Peace Center

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