In New York, attacks on women with head scarves raise alarms

Rana Abdelhamid, 23, founder of Hijabis of New York.
Rana Abdelhamid, 23, founder of Hijabis of New York.
(Barbara Demick / Los Angeles Times)

One woman is a decorated officer of the New York Police Department, commended two years ago for running into a burning building to save a baby.

Another is a 45-year-old employee of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who was commuting to work on the subway wearing her uniform.

Yet another, 18 years old, is a business major who was on the subway on her way home from college one evening last week.


They are among a rising number of Muslim women who say they have been assaulted in recent days in New York, renowned as the melting pot of America, and until recently vaunted as one of the most immigrant-friendly places in the world.

The off-duty police officer, Aml Elsokary, was parking her car near her home in Brooklyn on Saturday evening when she saw a tall white man with a pit bull shoving her son, who had just gotten out of the car.

“ISIS bitch, I will cut your throat. Go back to your country!” the man yelled at her, before loosening the pit bull’s leash and instructing the dog to “sic her.”

The following day, a 36-year-old neighbor, identified as Christopher Nelson, was arrested and charged with aggravated harassment, a hate crime, according to police.

“I was sick to my stomach when I heard that one of our officers was subjected to threats and taunting simply because of her faith,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday at a news conference with Elsokary to discuss a recent spate of the crimes. “There’s been a huge uptick in hate crimes. It’s very troubling.”

Elsokary, a 15-year veteran of the police force, wears a scarf under her police cap.

“I became a police officer to show the positive side of a New Yorker, Muslim woman that can do this job, that is non-biased. I help everybody, no matter what’s your religion, what’s your faith, what you do in New York,’’ she said at the news conference.

New York police report that hate crimes have more than doubled compared with this time last year. There were 42 incidents from the Nov. 8 election until Dec. 4, compared with 19 in the same period in 2015. More than half of the incidents have been directed against Jews – many of them involving swastika graffiti. Four incidents of anti-Muslim harassment were logged by police, although it appears there are many more that were not reported.

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“Most of the people I know don’t report. They feel humiliated and don’t want to call the police,” said Rana Abdelhamid, 23, a Queens-born daughter of Egyptian immigrants. Now a graduate student at Harvard University, Abdelhamid started a social media project called Hijabis of New York two years ago to support women who wear the head covering in the city.

Abdelhamid was one of the organizers of a small candlelight vigil Tuesday night in Washington Square Park. Afterward, the participants retreated to a cafe where they recounted the many times they were harassed for wearing a hijab.

For Abdelhamid, the first time was when she was 15 and a man crept up behind her and pulled off her scarf. The second time was just a few weeks ago when she was walking in Queens. “Why are you wearing that costume?” someone yelled at her. “Go back to wear you came from.”

Abdelhamid didn’t report the incident because she wasn’t physically touched, but she said it left her shaken and in tears.

“It is hard to explain the trauma you feel when you come face to face with somebody who has so much hatred for you,” Abdelhamid said.

You can’t have a candidate for president single out groups of Americans negatively and not have some ramifications.

— New York Mayor Bill de Blasio

Abdelhamid believes the harassment now is worse than even after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda militants. In recent weeks, she has started to wrap her scarf like a turban over her head when she has to take the subway.

“It makes it look less hijab-like and more like a fashion statement,” she said.

Many women find themselves caught between the spiritual imperative to cover their heads and the practicalities of transportation. The New York subways, where strangers are forced into an unaccustomed intimacy, have been the setting for many incidents.

On Dec. 5, Soha Salama, an Egyptian-born mother of four, was shoved down a staircase at Grand Central Terminal during the morning rush hour, sustaining injuries to her ankles and legs. Her assailant had followed her off the subway, she told reporters.

“You’re a terrorist. You shouldn’t work here,” the man yelled at her, poking the badge on her jacket that identified her as a transportation authority employee. As she tried to run away, the man attempted to yank off the brightly patterned white, green and red head scarf she was wearing.

Another case that made headlines in New York occurred Thursday night, when 18-year-old Yasmin Seweid says she was accosted by three visibly intoxicated men.

They cursed and yelled at her, pulling on her head covering and on her backpack, according to an account Seweid posted on Facebook. “Take that rag off your head.” “Go back to your country.”

Seweid also said the men repeatedly invoked the name of President-elect Donald Trump.

[Editor’s note: New York police on Dec. 14 said an investigation showed that the claim was a fabrication. Seweid was arrested and charged with obstructing governmental administration and filing a false report.]

Some New York officials blame the surge in hate crimes on Trump, arguing that his threats to deport Muslims during the presidential campaign have emboldened people to carry out racist attacks.

“You can’t have a candidate for president single out groups of Americans negatively and not have some ramifications,” De Blasio said at Monday’s news conference. He said that although Trump had disavowed white supremacist groups, he would need to do more to rein them in.

“A few times recently the president-elect has spoken out against it and he needs to keep doing that,” the mayor said. “The temperature has to be brought down.”


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9:15 p.m., Dec. 14: The story was updated with a statement from the New York Police Department saying one reported attack was a fabrication.

The article was originally published at 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 7.