When Ms Tramaine Kaleebu, 19, flew home from Chicago to Washington DC for the holidays, she donned a headscarf as a sign of solidarity with Muslims.
“I wore the headscarf to stand in embodied solidarity with Muslims who are consistently harassed or abused here in (the US for exercising) their human right or freedom of expression,” said the student of Wheaton College in Chicago. She added that a number of her college mates had also made the decision to do so this Christmas.
Their actions followed controversy at their private Christian college where political science professor Larycia Hawkins was suspended on Dec 15 for proclaiming online that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In the same Facebook post, the professor called for all women to join in “hijab-wearing solidarity with our Muslim sisters” during the holiday season.
Ms Kaleebu was one of those who heeded the call. “Anyone who looks Middle Eastern and wears a head covering seems to have a certain set of negative assumptions directed at them and, as a Christian who strives to practise (the same) neighbourly love that Jesus practised, I believe they should be treated with dignity,” she said.
It is a difficult time to be a Muslim woman in the United States, especially one wearing a headscarf.
After the recent terror attacks in the French capital Paris and San Bernardino in California, many Muslim women say they have been stared at, shouted at, and even physically abused when they go out wearing a hijab.
Said Ms Yasmine Taeb, a lobbyist for civic group Friends Committee on National Legislation, who works on issues such as Islamophobia: “I definitely think Muslim women are the most visible symbol of Islam and that is why they are most easily targeted.”
According to news reports, one tally by a research group at California State University showed 38 anti-Islamic attacks in the US since the Paris killings in November.
One incident involved a San Diego State University student who said she was attacked in a carpark by a man who pulled her headscarf while making hate-related threats. While she was not hurt, university police are investigating the case.
Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show there were about 178 anti-Islamic hate crime offences committed in 2014.
The environment has become so hostile that two Muslim women in New York City decided to start self-defence classes specifically for women. Spots in the classes held earlier this month were snapped up, and the classes attracted women from New Jersey and Connecticut as well.
“Women in the community are concerned about going out by themselves and are less inclined to do so,” said Ms Yasmine, whose friends have also been harassed. She gave an example of a friend who had been walking to work when someone in a passing car yelled “terrorist” at her.
“There is no reason why innocent men and women should be targeted,” she added.
On the flip side, there are groups like the students from Wheaton College who are going out of their way to show support for women in the Muslim community.
Executive director of Chicago’s Council On American Islamic Relations Ahmed Rehab said: “It is an act of human solidarity meant to be rooted in the Christian ideal of compassion – to stand with American Muslims who are the victims of this current backlash of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.”
Ms Yasmine said: “It is very helpful when we see such support. It lets those in the Muslim community know that they have friends.”