A New Jersey elementary school teacher is suing Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad for viral social media posts made last year accusing her of forcibly removing a student’s hijab, a headscarf worn by some Muslim women and girls.
The defamation lawsuit filed on Oct. 5 accuses the American fencer and other defendants of “categorically false allegations of bigotry, child abuse, and gross pedagogical misconduct.”
It further alleges that teacher Tamar Herman’s life and reputation were irreparably harmed by the “flood of interest and outrage” caused by Muhammad’s nearly identical Instagram and Facebook posts, both describing a tug-of-war scenario between Herman and the second-grade student, in which Herman was accused of trying to remove the hijab while the student held onto it.
Herman’s account of what happened contrasts with what was alleged in a lawsuit filed by the student’s parents. In her suit, Herman says that she thought the student’s hijab was a hood over her normally close-fitting hijab and only gently brushed it back from covering the student’s eyes. Once she realized the garment was a hijab, her lawsuit states she quickly apologized and “restored the hood to its original position immediately.” She also says that she did not comment on the student’s hair.
The suit also accuses the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country’s largest Muslim civil rights group, as well as the group’s New Jersey affiliate and the affiliate’s deputy executive director, of amplifying the matter through multiple calls for Herman’s termination, which were never retracted or withdrawn, and says the group was “motivated by a combination of greed and a fierce desire to burnish their brands as fighters against Islamophobia.”
Herman and Muhammad, an alum of the school district, shared a friendly relationship before the ordeal, the lawsuit claims, and they occasionally exercised together at the gym with their shared personal trainer. Neither Muhammad nor CAIR ever reached out to Herman before publicly repeating the allegations, despite the former having the teacher’s phone number, the lawsuit says.
Herman and Muhammad then exchanged a few text messages in which the teacher requested that she remove the “untrue” social media posts, but Muhammad kept the posts up at the time, the lawsuit says.
“We cannot yet comment on this filing, which our legal counsel must review,” CAIR-NJ told CNN in a statement. “However, we continue to strongly stand by this student, who had the clear constitutional right to cover her hair for religious reasons without physical interference or humiliation.”
CNN has reached out to Muhammad for comment. CNN also reached out to the family’s attorney, who was unable to provide a comment about the teacher’s filing.
The lawsuit comes a few weeks after the Superior Court of New Jersey dismissed the student’s parents’ religious discrimination lawsuit against Herman and the South Orange Maplewood School District (SOMSD) Board of Education on procedural grounds. The family’s attorney told CNN on Monday that “the matter is being settled” but was unable to provide further clarification at the moment.
According to that lawsuit, filed in March, Herman pulled back the student’s hijab and exposed her uncovered head to the entire class, told the student that she couldn’t wear “that” in school, and said her natural hair was “beautiful.” The parents alleged that Herman’s actions were discriminatory and that the school district didn’t take proper action to protect their child. In her lawsuit, Herman denies making these statements to the student.
It is humiliating for a Muslim woman to have her hair seen in public against her will, CAIR-NJ told CNN affiliate WCBS last year. The student’s mother told WCBS that her daughter was so traumatized by the incident that she didn’t want to wear her hijab anymore.
Muhammad has been outspoken about her challenges as a Muslim and has championed cultural pride. She was the first US athlete to compete in the Olympic Games in a hijab.
“It’s a struggle to be a Muslim woman right now. For all Muslims in our country,” Muhammad told CNN in 2016, the year she won an Olympic bronze medal.
The lawsuit alleges that Herman was subject to virulent antisemitism once the student’s mother went to Facebook, accusing the teacher of removing her child’s hijab because of her Jewish identity. Herman is also suing the SOMSD, alleging they were complicit in this “relentless discriminatory treatment” by not defending her against these online attacks and instead placing her on administrative leave.
The school’s subsequent attempts to educate the community on Islamophobia with fact sheets and anti-bias training were seen by Herman as defaming her by tacitly endorsing the allegations, according to the lawsuit.
Herman asked the local Police Department for protection but eventually “had no realistic choice but to permanently move out of her home” of 27 years in the aftermath of the incident and social media backlash, according to the lawsuit. The Essex County Prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into Herman last October but concluded in January that there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges.
CNN has reached out to the school district for comment.