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Students, teachers wear hijabs to support Duluth East freshman

Shanze Hayee, a freshman at East High School, stands on a chair while explaining to fellow students why Muslim women and others wear the hijab or headscarf. She also advised them that during their show of solidarity Wednesday that they might get curious or critical looks. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 4
Rana Imtiaz, a senior at East High School, helps tie a hijab for Tessa Mlinar as Paige Olson watches. The girls wore hijabs as a show of unity against racial prejudice during the school day Wednesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 4
Several East High School students, including Paige Olson (center), who participated in the show of solidarity, visit before the start of classes Wednesday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 4
Agatha Pokrzywinski, a junior, attaches a paper star during the show of unity. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 4

Duluth East High School freshman Shanze Hayee has worn a hijab, or headscarf, to school every day since she was in sixth grade.

She's endured stares and the occasional "off" comment, she said, but she was better prepared for high school by wearing a headscarf from a young age.

"Overall, the city is great and my experience has been great," Hayee said, since she started wearing a hijab, which can be a large part of a Muslim woman's identity. But frustration has emerged in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump's proposals that first called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S., scaled back later to "extreme vetting" of those coming from certain parts of the world, said East senior Rana Imtiaz, also Muslim.

On Wednesday morning, more than 30 female students and a couple of teachers gathered before class at East and put on colorful headscarves in a display of unity. Hayee, the only student at East who wears one, climbed onto a chair and explained the hijab and what it signified and then helped students learn how to wear the scarf.

No one can force a Muslim woman to wear a hijab, she said, but to her, wearing it sends a message "that a woman is more than her beauty and sexuality."

"It's not just about what's on the outside," Hayee said. "When we cover up our beauty, we are basically saying focus on our minds and our hearts."

Imtiaz organized the effort. While inspired by Trump's anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric, the effort isn't "an anti-Trump movement," she said.

"It's a movement for love and peace and solidarity," Imtiaz said, explaining her frustration with reports that many women are now afraid to wear a hijab.

"I also felt like there wasn't a lot of support and love for the Muslim community, and that was something important to me," she said. "I am so grateful to all these people who are willing to do something that might make them uncomfortable, but is for the greater good."

English teacher Danielle Westholm also wore a hijab Wednesday.

Being the only student in school who wears a headscarf, Hayee can be singled out, she said.

By a large showing of support for her, "it normalizes it," Westholm said.

Only about 150 Muslims live in Duluth, or less than two-tenths of a percent of Duluth's population, according to Ibrahim Al-Qudah, president of the Islamic Center of the Twin Ports.

"In the wake of Trump and all of this rhetoric against Muslims, and painting everyone with the same brush, it heightened the sensitivity of the Muslim woman to the dress code," said Sabah Alwan, a professor in the School of Business and Technology at the College of St. Scholastica and a Muslim, who writes about his Islamic studies. "They want people to know they are normal human beings. If you choose to dress a certain way, it is your choice."

Junior Isabelle Schomberg said the election season caused some tension at East, with many students differing on their preference for president of the United States.

"There were some sharp divides here, but it's calming down a bit," she said.

Reports of racist and other intolerant language and graffiti aimed at students have come from Duluth schools, including East and Denfeld. On Tuesday, a picture of Trump with an inflammatory message was found inside a trophy case at Ordean East Middle School. The school and its police resource officer are investigating.

Much attention has gone to the small group of "negative" students, East Principal Danette Seboe said, but schools are full of kids supporting each other "every day, not just today and not just because of the election."

"They are very worried about things bigger than and outside of East," she said of her students. "But on a day-to-day basis, they are very good at supporting the students they come here with every day. Often before and far better than any of the staff here, they see a need and they find a way to fill that."

East students also planned a "safety pin" campaign to begin Wednesday, with the intention of handing them out to willing students who will wear them to indicate they are a "safe" and accepting person. Students throughout the city have started or are planning supportive events. At Denfeld, inspiring and positive Post-it notes have been placed around the school. A group of Marshall School students has planned a walk-out today in protest of discrimination in the community and expects to meet up with students from East and Harbor City International School.

East achievement center coordinator Cal Harris said things like the hijab event are needed in Duluth schools.

"The more students come together to combat some of this stuff, that's how things change," he said.

Hayee prepared hijab-wearing students for stares and questions.

"But I think people are going to ask good questions," Imtiaz said, "and maybe open up their eyes to the world" and have a deeper understanding of Muslim people.

Hayee said she was grateful as more students joined the group, donning headscarves.

"It is an amazing idea I never would have thought of," she said. "Really, I am going to enjoy today."