Workshop Helps Bystanders Defend Islamophobia Victims

REDMOND, Washington – For young Fatima Sheikh, a junior majoring in education at the University of Washington, any offer for help from bystanders in cases when she faces harassment is a blessing.

“We live in a time of heightened fear, both in verbal and bombast and very real violence,” she told The Seattle Times on Sunday.

The 20-year-old student was in 10th grade when she decided to completely cover her face.

“It’s my religious belief, modesty in expressing myself,” she said.

Sheikh shows her religion every time she goes out in public, and it was the reason she attended “Bystander Intervention Training.”

She recalls many cases in which she wished she was not alone. In one incident, she was taking a bus from the Woodland Park area to the University of Washington.

A man nearby began staring. “I’m used to that,” she says. A woman in full niqab is an unusual sight in Seattle. “I kind of ignore it.”

Then, “He started saying these awful things. ‘OK. You’re a terrorist.’ ”

“‘I’m calling the police,’ he said. As if the cops would sympathize with him,” she added.

On her Facebook page, Sheikh recounts being on the bus in January 2017 at the Pacific Science Center with her mom and 10-year-old sister.

“… having visitors comment on how I am dressed — and in such a hateful manner! — is quite shameful and disheartening,” she posted.

“I can’t imagine the type of impact that had on my little sister — hearing grown adults around her criticize and say blatantly rude things about her mother and sister.”

Positive Bystander

The training session, held at the Courtyard by Marriott near the Lake Union, was organized by the Washington branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

The training followed a 16-page guide that’s available online, and which has participants take part in a number of scenarios.

The training included a man harassing a hijab-wearing woman on a bus. Another was a Latino man speaking Spanish with a store clerk, and a third of a trans woman being harassed while heading to a restaurant lavatory.

In the bus scenario, the advice is to recruit others by loudly saying something like, “My friend and I are going to move down here, is there anyone else who would like to join us in polite conversation?” This then creates a physical barrier between the harasser and his target.

Some of those attending had to play the role of the harasser, while others played the role of bystander.

“Are you OK?” “Can I help?” “I’ll accompany you to the bathroom.”

The guide also prominently states what it “will NOT do is teach you how to deal with situations of immediate danger.”

The advice for that, it says, is “leave the situation as fast as possible.”

The training was praised by a spokesman for Seattle police, saying the content of the training guide was “very good” and “empowers Seattle residents to stand up for each other.”

Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said that also means that “there is a nuance to every situation,” meaning, “don’t put yourself at risk.”