Teacher at center of hijab controversy sues Olympic medalist for defamation

A seconds-long interaction in a New Jersey classroom sparked a national firestorm last October as it ricocheted across social media platforms. A 7-year-old girl had come home from school upset, telling her mother that her teacher in Maplewood, NJ, had tried to remove the hijab the girl wears as a practicing Muslim.

Her mother shared the story on Facebook, and Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympic medalist who fences in a hijab, immediately called it out as abuse in an Instagram post that went viral. The next day, Governor Philip D. Murphy had weighed in on Twitterand a statewide Islamic organization called for “immediate fire.”

A year later, the case landed in court. The family sued the school district and the teacher, Tamar Herman. And this month, the teacher filed a libel lawsuit that accuses the Olympic athlete and the New Jersey chapter of the American Islamic Rights Council and its director of causing “irreparable harm”.

At the time, the incident rocked a community known for its liberal values ​​and tapped into a deep sense of anxiety among many Muslims, who make up around 3% of the state’s population and faced a increase in bias crimes.

And while many facts remained unclear, social media was quickly flooded with angry opinions.

“The strong response from the local, state and national levels is largely the culmination of two decades of feeling targeted and vulnerable,” said Sahar Aziz, a professor at Rutgers Law School and author of a book on the Islamophobia, “The Racial Muslim: When Racism Cancels Religious Freedom.

The teacher said in the lawsuit that she ‘pushed off’ a hooded garment that blocked the student’s eyes, believing the girl was wearing her typical ‘tight’ hijab underneath. She said she immediately replaced the headgear and apologized to the girl once she realized her mistake.

In her lawsuit, she claims that Ms. Muhammad, the fencer, and CAIR-NJ were “driven by a combination of greed and a fierce desire to re-establish themselves as fighters against Islamophobia”, and that her reputation has been so tarnished that she may never be hired by another public school district.

The court documents also cite Governor Murphy’s social media comment, but he is not named as a defendant.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 5 in Union County Superior Court, also alleges Ms. Herman is so afraid for her safety in the community where she taught for 20 years and also lived that she had to leave. definitely his home.

“She was ostracized by her community,” said her lawyer, Erik Dykema.

Even though the lawsuit was filed two weeks ago, Mr. Dykema said neither Ms. Muhammad nor CAIR-NJ had received legal documents.

Messages left for Ms Muhammad and the agency representing her, Wasserman, were not returned.

Selaedin Maksut, the executive director of CAIR-NJ, said he and his organization were unaware of the lawsuit until Monday.

“We cannot yet comment on this matter, which our legal counsel must review,” CAIR-NJ said in a statement. “However, we continue to strongly support this student, who had a clear constitutional right to cover her hair for religious reasons without physical interference or humiliation.”

The incident happened on Oct. 6, 2021, about five weeks after classes began in the South Orange-Maplewood School District in northern New Jersey.

Ms Herman said the girl’s face was almost entirely obscured by the mask she and her classmates had to wear at the time to slow the spread of Covid-19, and by what the lawsuit describes as a “hood”.

After realizing the girl was not wearing a hijab underneath, Ms Herman “immediately pushed back the hood to cover all of the student’s hair and apologized”, according to the lawsuit. “The hood never left the student’s head.”

A family attorney, Robert L. Tarver, said the child immediately objected and kept the headgear.

A lawsuit brought by the family in March, citing religious discrimination, said Ms Herman also touched the girl’s hair and “told her that her natural hair was beautiful”.

That lawsuit was dismissed last month, according to court records. Mr Tarver said on Monday that the parties were “involved in the settlement”, but did not give details.

He said he had no comment on Ms Herman’s claim that she had been injured.

Because the original charge involved potential bias over a religious article worn to cover hair and maintain modesty, the district quickly referred the case to the Essex County District Attorney’s Office, who investigated but dismissed refused to file a complaint.

The teacher was not allowed to return to class and remains on administrative leave, according to the lawsuit. A district spokeswoman said she had no immediate information about the teacher’s professional status.

The interaction quickly spread far beyond the school, Seth Boyden Elementary.

Mr. Maksut, who wrote on Twitter that “racist teachers like this can’t trust our children”, appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” ​​to discuss his organization’s demand that Ms Herman be immediately fired.

Ms Muhammad, who has a huge following on social media and has written a children’s book about a girl who wears the hijab, urged people to call and email the school.

“Imagine being a child and stripped of your clothes in front of your classmates,” she wrote. “Imagine the humiliation and trauma this experience has caused him. This is abuse.”

Over the next few weeks, the district sent thousands of angry emails and calls. Primary school pupils were temporarily banned from going out for the gym or recess due to safety concerns as protesters and network news cameras showed up outside.

Facebook groups popular with parents in Maplewood and South Orange, NJ, neighboring towns about 30 miles from Manhattan that share a school district, were inundated with opinions that escalated to rancor once Ms. Herman was injected into the online discourse.

Ms Herman, in the lawsuit, said she had been the victim of ‘anti-Semitic vitriol and hatred’.

His trial is funded by The Lawfare Project, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the “civil and human rights of Jewish people around the world.”

As a public figure, Ms Muhammad “should have known better”, Mr Dykema said.

“And she should have done a little more homework before she started saying the things she said online,” he added.