Sahar Khorramnezhad is always dressed to a T. With dark hair, a strut that turns heads and a smile that brings light to any room, most know Khorramnezhad as a student highly involved in a variety of activities on the University Park Campus, ranging from her pre-law fraternity to Undergraduate Student Government.
But she hasn’t always radiated confidence. Growing up as a young girl of Middle Eastern origin, she recalls the endless taunting of her peers for one reason: her hijab.
“I would get so many stares and snickers,” Khorramnezhad said. “I could feel the way people looked at me to the point that I became such an insecure person with it on.”
A hijab is a headdress worn by Muslim women. Khorramnezhad said she started wearing hers at the age of nine, and said she faced negative reactions and misunderstanding from her peers.
Khorramnezhad is hardly the only Middle Eastern student who has experienced adversity of this type. Many Middle Eastern students at USC, who comprise a variety of nationalities, cultures and religions, feel the impact of perceptions that their Middle Eastern peers and the general student body have.
Though definitions vary, the Middle East is often defined as the group of countries stretching from North Africa to Iran and from Turkey to Yemen. The area is rich in diversity, and includes many groups categorized by nationality, religion and ethnicity.
Because of differences among groups in the Middle East, Khorramnezhad said there is no one organization on campus that caters to students from the region.
“Unlike the [Black Student Assembly] or [Latino Student Assembly] where there are many different assemblies under them,” Khorramnezhad said, “there’s nothing like that for Middle Easterners.”
Additionally, many students said though the regional term is used as a broad descriptor, they identify more with a more specified group.
Ifrah Sheikh, a senior majoring in fine art, said the diversity of the region comes from more than just a regional identity.
“I know a lot of people who identify with that region of the world but do so in different ways,” Sheikh said. “Which country you’re from and which you specifically identify with plays a big role. The customs and the dialect in which they speak also brings diversity to it.”
For Engie Salama, a senior majoring in global health, religion is a unifying factor for many Middle Eastern students. Salama started her college career living on the Muslim floor of Parkside Apartments. She also joined the Muslim Student Union, which seeks to strengthen the community as well as educate non-Muslims through various programming. She is now the president of the MSU, leading 11 board members and more than 100 student members.
“In terms of unity of the Middle Eastern community, I don’t think there are any issues but there isn’t a cohesive, uniting force either. It’s not really divided or united,” Salama said. “Islam is more of a uniting force than divisive. Whether they come from Kazakhstan or Pakistan, it is neat to say that we can share meals together and worship together.”
There are many Middle Eastern students who practice other religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, some of whom feel religion does not bring them closer to their peers from the region.
Asher Levy, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, politics and law, said that though he identifies as both Syrian and Jewish, he struggles to truly define himself as Middle Eastern. Levy added that it is difficult to identify with the rest of the region given the religious divides.
“I’m sure a lot of Middle Eastern life on campus is probably religiously based,” Levy said. “A lot of that is tied in with Muslim organizations on campus, which is great. But as a practicing Jew, it’s not for me.”
Christin Toubia, a junior majoring in business administration, is a Christian, but some mistake her for a Muslim because her father hails from Sudan. As a resident of Dubai, Toubia identifies herself as Middle Eastern.
“Growing up in Dubai, one of the main issues in the Middle East that you are really exposed to is the Israeli and Palestinian conflict,” Toubia said. “I think there is a divide there.”
As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ebbs and flows, USC students in Trojans for Israel, ’SC Students for Israel and Students for Justice in Palestine have responded with peaceful demonstrations.
Though the conflict within the realm of the campus community usually remains tame and respectful, Levy said that there is still some tension between the student groups.
Though the conflict itself can be divisive, Sheikh said she doesn’t see it translating into dividing Middle Eastern students.
“Most of the people who support Israel and their policies on campus do not have a direct tie to the Middle East — most of them aren’t even Israeli,” Sheikh said. “Even for the people who are supportive of Palestine, a lot of them are not Arab. A lot of them don’t have ties to the Middle East but recognize this as an injustice towards a human entity.”
In addition to differences among students categorized as Middle Eastern, there also exist differences with how Middle Eastern students feel they are perceived by all students.
Salama feels that though culture and the media often attach a stigma to the Middle East, it does not exist at USC.
“There is a stigmatization of Middle Easterners and Arabs in general,” Salama said. “But at USC, generally everyone is welcoming and open-minded. I don’t think I’ve had any problems in terms of acceptance.”
Khorramnezhad said, however, that she feels the campus climate is not as welcoming.
“Not many people understand what the hijab is,” Khorramnezhad said. “This campus isn’t necessarily hijab-friendly.”
But the unfriendliness of some has not stopped some students from wearing the hijab. Now a senior, Sheikh has worn her hijab since her sophomore year.
“I’ve had a lot of negativity and racism directed towards me for wearing a scarf,” Sheikh said. “But that hasn’t prevented me from getting somewhere I want to be. I’m president of two organizations and I feel like I’m well-respected and people take me seriously. Of course you’ll run into people who immediately judge you based on how you look, but I’ve never had that stop me.”
Sheikh said her decision to wear her hijab is ultimately a personal one, not one that is influenced by others. She believes the intolerance some students face stems from a single-layered view of the Middle East.
“When people think Middle Eastern, they immediately think Muslim. And when they think Muslim, there’s a whole range of stereotypes tied to that,” Sheikh said.
Khorramnezhad said she feels USC’s culture can alienate many Middle Eastern students.
“Imagine someone who is Muslim, who cannot drink,” Khorramnezhad said. “Or someone who wears the hijab. Imagine how left out they must feel.”
Khorramnezhad feels that the university must do more to support Middle Eastern students, such as planning more university-wide events to help break down the stigmas associated with different cultures.
This lack of uniformity within the Middle Eastern community is a token of the intrinsic diversity of the region in which, oftentimes, no two voices are alike. Though “Middle Eastern” is used as a broad identifier, many students want to define what it means for themselves.
“It’s a mess of contradiction and conflict,” Levy said. “But it’s where my family comes from. It’s where my culture comes from. It’s everything I associate with.”
Yasmeen Serhan contributed to this report.
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