Jokes Aside, Islamophobia Is Serious stuff (Lessons Higher Ed Can Take From Georgia State)

Recently, articles featured on terry* about stereotypes of Islam/Muslims have generated much discussion and debate.

I’d love to discover one day that articles like this are over the top and complete exaggerations of what goes on when you wear the hijab. Unfortunately though, that day isn’t here yet.

On Canada Day, I read a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the harassment of Georgia State University doctoral student Slma Shelbayah by senior faculty member Mary Stuckey, who repeatedly asked her whether she had bombs under her headscarf. She pursued the matter, asked Ms. Stuckey to halt her attacks, and spoke to the director of the Middle East Institute of Georgia State, Ms Stewart.

The story gets worse though.

Citing from the complaint report, the Chronicle of Higher Ed notes that:

“When Ms. Stewart and the student pressed administrators to deal with the incidents, the dean’s office at the college of arts and science demanded that Ms. Stewart remove the student from a visiting-instructor position at the Middle East Institute, canceled the student’s registration for her doctoral courses, and declared the student ineligible to lead a study-abroad program in Egypt that had already been approved”.
Administrators subsequently withdrew their support for Ms. Stewart’s plan to use a federal grant to establish a bachelor-of-arts program in Middle Eastern studies, and otherwise undermined her and her institute”.

As Ms Stewart described to Augusta Chronicle,

“I refused to participate in retaliation against Slma,” Ms. Stewart said in a phone interview Wednesday. “What started as a series of unbelievable comments in public over a period of eight days back in August — basically calling her a terrorist — developed into attempts to remove her.

The director of the Institute has now resigned in protest of the way the university handled the situation. You can watch interviews with both Ms Stewart and Ms Shelbayah here, and here and read more here at Inside Higher Ed. This story has actually gotten a fair bit of coverage, so you might have seen this story elsewhere too.

On so many levels, this is a troubling story. At the same time though, there are lessons that can derived to improve the safety of our respective post secondary institutes, and ensure that incidents like this do not reoccur.

For instance:

1) Clarity: a) Do students at your campus know where to go when they are harassed by supervisors, faculty members/other individuals that they interact with throughout their educational journey? Is this clearly outlined in student guides/other important sources of student information? b) Do faculty and staff know organizational expectations around communication with each other and students?  Is this uniform across departments? Is it understood across campus how complaints are dealt with?

2) Objectivity: Are the structures that meant to address complaints outside structures of power? ( I.e-if the only person you can go to talk to is your thesis supervisor, and that’s the person you are complaining about, that’s a cause for concern)

3) Safety:  It is an important conversation to have: How do we create structures where discrimination can be addressed honestly and fairly within our campus? When students bring forth complaints, do we keep them safe at our schools? Or do we punish them for bringing forth the complaint in the first place? Do we brush them off and tell them not to be so sensitive?

4) Culture: Is it understood that discrimination is an important issue and will not be taken lightly? I remember being at a community dialogue for racism at few years ago, and many students brought up that yes, they had experienced disconcerting behaviour from teachers and/or other students, but they were not sure where to go, or whether it would be addressed.

The bottom line: It should not be a scary, alienating, harmful process talking about injustice. When it is, it sends a message to students within an institution and outside its walls that there is a personal cost to speaking out. And universities, places of learning and ideas, should not be afraid of confronting those that behave in oppressive ways, even when that confrontation opens the university up to a very public light.

Hopefully this incident will bring Georgia State to a more inclusive place.

Related Topics


Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at