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Yvonne R. Davis

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Georgia State University Stands Behind a Professor Who Discriminated Against An Arab and Muslim Woman

Posted: 07/06/09 12:46 PM ET

Behind the tears she shed on CNN this past 4th of July weekend is a brilliant, brave and beautiful 25 year old woman by the name of Slma Shelbayah. A doctoral student in Journalism and guest professor at Georgia State University, it appears the system geared up against her in a most ill-mannered way. It seemed okay in 2008 for a University Professor to harass a Muslim student and get away with it.

You ask why? The answer is, because they could, and also because an Arab "girl" who wears a Hijab can't demand respect from a professor who is the Graduate Director in the Department of Communications. A woman committed to following Islam and the call by the Holy Quaran to dress modestly has to swallow the tenured Professor's constant queries if she is "wearing a bomb" in her hair underneath that scarf. After all, this professor is beyond reproach. She penned eight books on presidential communication and rhetoric, including national identity, strategic failures and the pre-presidential and presidential rhetoric of Ronald Reagan. Her recent book Defining Americans puts Dr. Mary Stuckey in the position as "Commander In Chief" of what it is to be an American and a person like student Professor Slma Shelbayah does not fit because she covers her head.

When Dr. Stuckey who has appeared on CSPAN and active in the Women's Caucus was confronted by student Professor Shelbayah for these anti-Arab/Muslim comments, she just said, "sorry." However, to show how remorseful she was, with University approval she stripped Shelbayah of her guest professorship. Additionally, she lost her position in the Department of Middle East Institute Exchange Program and worst of all she lost her financial support to complete her doctoral studies. Shelbayah has been reduced to nothing because she wants her freedom of religion and expression to be upheld.

In protest, tenured professor Dona Stewart stepped down as director of the University's Middle East Institute. She filed a discrimination complaint with the Justice Department. It is quite noble she is standing with Shelbayah. Stewart's job is safe. She received a promotion at Georgia State University and it will be interesting to see how hard she will continue to push to make sure that student Professor Shelbayah receives restitution for being treated as less-than for being Arab and Muslim. Professor Stewart should not be so naïve to think this issue is only about Civil Rights. Perhaps focusing on this aspect of it along gives her comfort to fight for justice. The Anti Arab/Muslim fight is perhaps too messy.

Georgia State University should be ashamed for allowing a woman who in 2004 completed her Bachelors degree at this institution in only two years become reduced to this level of humiliation. By the way, Shelbayah received her Masters at Georgia State as well. The retaliation she received is thanks for her loyalty to Georgia State University.

A determined young lady, when student Professor Shelbayah was 20-years old she pushed through her undergraduate education registering and completing between 16 to 18 hours worth of course work per semester while simultaneously holding a job at a bookstore and interning at CBS 46. She even taught religious and Arabic classes and interacted with youth groups. During one semester as an undergrad, she dedicated 30 hours or 10 classes to graduate in December. Do you really think a student like this deserves to have Dr. Stuckey who has won teaching awards from the American Political Science Association treat her this way? Maybe since Dr. Stuckey is interested in how political power is constructed and communicated this was a part of her qualitative research for her ninth book or 31st article on the "Rhetoric of Hatred -- How to Intimidate an Arab Woman by Telling Her Colleagues She Does Not Have a Bomb In Her Scarf?"

Student Professor Shelbayah and her tenured supporter professor have a battle to fight, but if Georgia State University is an Institution of Higher Learning that it is supposed to be then it will not stand for any type of discriminatory practices against any student. Instead of "siding" with its star studded academic professor against a "lowly" Arab female student Professor, the leadership should take up this issue and not feel they have already dealt with the matter when they have done nothing.

The Middle East Institute's leadership does not list one Arab/Muslim/Coptic professor on its web page. Something is wrong here. How can you promote and talk about the Middle East, when no one in your leadership is named Muhammad, Abdullah, Latifah or Shelbayah? Even the school's 2009 spring lecture series is pretty lame and does not give any more hope in having someone by the last name of Bukai or Shelbayah! African Americans know good and well if white advertisers, corporations and yes Universities want our attention they need to have someone who looks likes like us on their team in a leadership position. If one wants the attention of Latinos someone better habla Espanol! Institutions that ignore these simple facts are arrogant and exploitative.

This sadly is not the first time this University has been down this road of discrimination. In 2007, it had a case filed by a female Asian Professor who was treated horribly and paid less then her counterparts. She heard comments such as "there are too many Chinese professors." Therefore, it is with great hope Georgia State University President Mark P. Becker steps in to resolve this issue immediately. As he considers his plan of action, he may want to ponder the words of our 44th President Barack Hussein Obama. "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality."

 

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