“Someone is behind you,” she heard her sister say, in Arabic.
It was Tuesday afternoon, around 2 p.m., on the main floor of Zimmerman Library. It was Election Day, the culmination of one of the more divisive presidential campaigns in recent history, and America was waiting to find out who would lead the country for the next four years.
Students filled the library as they usually do, studying and chatting quietly in small groups.
This was the scene when, while working on homework with her sister and friends, one UNM student was targeted for her headscarf, referred to as the common hijab customarily worn by Muslim women.
Before the incident, the student said she noticed her sister looking around nervously and giving her a strange look, which is when she told her someone was behind her.
Turning around, the student said she was faced with a man she recognized from class, just as he was reaching toward her forehead.
She said he was aiming for her hijab, trying to pull it off her head.
Reacting quickly, she leaned away from his approach. He then reached for her arm, shaking her repeatedly.
The student said she then stood up, removing herself from his grasp and asking the man, “What was that for?”
He initially looked shocked by her reaction, she said, and then explained to her his frustrations about not being able to retaliate when people speak negatively about President-elect Donald Trump.
The student — who said she hardly knew the man and had never spoken about politics with him before — stood in disbelief.
“You can say anything you want to me and I don’t mind,” she responded at the time. “You can tell me anything you want and I probably won’t even respond. But as soon as you put your hands on me, you touch me. You physically assault me. That’s when things become serious.”
They stood there in conversation for the next few minutes, she said, which is when she noticed the atmosphere of the room around her.
Everyone appeared uncomfortable but, to her surprise, no one stood up in her defense.
The man eventually left and the student said she rejoined her sister and friends.
“As soon as I sat down, everyone else just looked shocked. They were just frozen,” she said. “That whole time, no one said a word. No one knew what to do.”
After the incident, the student said she was scared to report it to anyone, fearing her next encounter with the man in their shared class.
It was at this point that she said she tweeted about what had happened to her.
The tweet, which read “Guys, a trump supporter tried pulling off my hijab... This is not a joke anymore, all non-whites have become targets. Stay safe,” has since been retweeted nearly 20,000 times, and has garnered a spectrum of responses, some supportive and some negatively charged.
Through it all, the student said she tried to remain anonymous.
“I think social media is both positive and negative. It’s positive because people need to know this is really happening,” she said. “Then there’s those people that don’t believe it happened. They think I’m lying and doing this for attention. But for me, whenever I talk to news or even on Twitter, I try to stay anonymous. I don’t want this for myself at all. I don’t want any negative attention.”
After speaking with her family and reading several of the responses on social media, she said she decided to report the incident.
The student went to the Office of Equal Opportunity and explained the situation, saying her biggest concern was that no one had come to her aid.
They discussed her options and she said she eventually decided she did not want to bring any charges against the man.
“He did make a mistake. But I think, since he is in my class, I might get the opportunity to talk to him personally and explain to him that what he did affected me and affected the people that were around me,” she said.
UNMPD later contacted her to make sure she was safe after hearing about the incident.
“The Office of Equal Opportunity is very concerned about hate-bias or discriminatory incidents on campus this week, as we value the diversity of our students, faculty and staff. We also emphasize the importance of respectful dialogue on campus,” said OEO Director Francie Cordova. “OEO is the campus location to report any civil rights concerns. We will also guide any faculty, staff or student to any additional resources they may need.”
One of those resources coming up this week is an OEO-organized event. Officials will hold Kindness Corner on Tuesday from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. in Mesa Vista Hall, an event designed to encourage kindness and respect for all students in a time when emotions are running high following Election Day’s surprising outcome.
“I feel like that if someone had come after or during and stood up for me, then I wouldn’t have even felt the need to put it on Twitter,” she said. “But since no one came up to me, I thought, ‘OK, this is going on and people don’t really know what to do.’ Just whenever you see something like this happening, stand up for whoever is being affected. That’s it. It just takes one word or one action to change a whole person’s perspective.”
Gabriela Garcia Huff is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @thegreen_gablin.