How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

by

Moustafa Bayoumi

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How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Yasmin Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One day, heading to Taco Bell on the bus to pick up food for her sisters, Yasmin watches a white couple harass a fellow hijab-wearing Muslim woman, suggesting that she has a bomb under her blanket. It is just a baby, Yasmin insists, as the white couple wonders aloud whether the woman might be a terrorist. The couple forces the driver to check—it is a baby, indeed—and then returns to reading the newspaper as though nothing has happened. Yasmin is angry, certain that the targeted woman must “feel humiliated and upset.” When she gets off the bus, she writes down its license plate number and thinks about calling 911, reporting that the white woman has a bomb in her purse, “just to make a point, to make them feel the same way—singled out, powerless, discriminated against, a source of irrational fear.”
Yasmin witnesses an extraordinary scene of racial profiling that all involved—except the victim—treat like an inconsequential routine. The woman’s hijab marks her as a threat, representing the “enemy.” In reality, she is the opposite of a heartless terrorist: a protective mother. Undoubtedly, Yasmin also feels “humiliated and upset” to live in a country where treating someone this way can be routine; she sees how Du Bois’s “veil” separates the white couple from the Arab woman whom they humiliate without regarding as a full human being.
Themes
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Yasmin, like many hijab-wearing women in the United States, is fearless and formidable, “far from the stereotype of the submissive and retreating female.” Western people who accept the notion that the hijab represents repression and silence often do not realize that, precisely because they must counter this stereotype, hijabi women are often courageous and vocal. Yasmin, for one, had to endure a lengthy battle with her school’s administration in order to express her religious beliefs. She grew up wearing the hijab and attending Muslim private girls’ schools; she is devoutly religious. Yasmin’s father is an Egyptian Muslim while her mother is a Filipina Catholic who converted to Islam. After finishing at her private school, Yasmin goes to public junior-high and high schools in Brooklyn.
The hijab is itself a symbol for the misinterpretations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States: for the former, it is a form of personal expression and the ability to wear it in public is a cause for pride in American multiculturalism; for the latter, it symbolizes the suppression, not expression, of women’s voices and Islam’s ostensible desire to destroy the American way of life. Of Bayoumi’s subjects so far, Yasmin is the only one who sees religion as central to her identity and daily life, and her ethnic identities tell an unusual story contrary to stereotypes of traditional Muslims as only marrying within their immigrant communities.
Themes
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Arab American Identities Theme Icon
Faith, Tradition, and Islam Theme Icon
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At Fort Hamilton High School in the wealthy, quiet, tree-lined area of the same name in Bay Ridge, Yasmin stumbles into student government, filling out the onerous application and gathering the necessary 100 signatures to run for secretary. On the day of the speeches, Yasmin is sure she will lose—her opponents are a popular Greek boy and a scantily-clad Russian girl—but Arab and Muslim students start coming up to her afterward to express their pride, and she wins in a landslide. She soon begins attending Executive Board meetings and virtually moves into the school’s Leadership classroom.
Yasmin is simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about student government: she wants to represent her peers but fears that she will not be accepted. It turns out that others not only welcome her, but also see her as a role model for Arab and Muslim students struggling to find a place in their school. From the moment she enters high school, Yasmin’s fearlessness and personal drive help her break down barriers.
Themes
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Growing Up and Self-Discovery Theme Icon
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One day, two secular Albanian Muslim girls ask her about the year’s first dance—Yasmin is not planning to go, but the other girls think this might be a problem. She explains to the student affairs coordinator that her religious beliefs preclude her from going to the dance, but he says that her position in student government requires her to go. Their argument reaches a standstill; the administrator calls Yasmin’s father, who consults a sheikh (a Muslim community leader). The sheikh agrees that Yasmin cannot go—she cannot even sit in another room during the event, as the school proposes (this would be like sitting in a house where someone else is using drugs—she would also be arrested for “being a part of that house”).
After overcoming the prejudice she perceived at her school, Yasmin immediately runs into it again: her religious obligations conflict with those of her role in student government, and the school forces her to choose between desires that she does not see as mutually exclusive—what does it matter to the school, she wonders, if she sits in the basement or goes home for a few hours, when it matters immensely to her ethically?
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The Executive Board meets without Yasmin and agrees with the student affairs coordinator that she has to go to the dance or else resign. The coordinator meets with her father and then with Yasmin, who protests and cites the Federal Equal Access Act. But the coordinator does not budge. During his meeting with Yasmin’s father, he asks, “how long do you think you can control your daughter?” Yasmin and her father are hurt; she resigns, but includes an explanation that she is “giving up my position to defend what I believe in.” She finds a copy of the minutes from the Executive Board meeting about her: everyone else in the student government voted against her. The Russian girl takes over her job.
The coordinator’s provocative question to Yasmin’s father blatantly ignores the fact that, as she emphasizes in her letter, Yasmin is making the decision not to go to the dances herself, because of her own beliefs rather than any forced onto her by her parents. The coordinator plays on stereotypes about Muslim gender roles (that men hold all authority and women are powerless victims of male “control”) and the presumption that immigrant children will inevitably give up more traditional, conservative religious beliefs in mainstream American societies.
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At home, in her father’s tiny office, Yasmin begins printing and organizing files about anti-discrimination laws and the school’s “Bill of Student Rights and Responsibilities.” After months of obsessive research and conversation with her friends, she e-mails a trustee of the New York City Board of Education and begins a dialogue about investigating her case—but she is unwilling to name her school, so the investigation cannot happen. She talks to the school superintendent, but also gets nowhere. She begins reading law books at the Brooklyn Public Library and talks to the student affairs coordinator whenever she comes up with a new argument—he always listens patiently but ultimately refutes her ideas. Meanwhile, the student government is rescheduling events to accommodate the Jewish holidays, and “steam pour[s] out of Yasmin’s ears at the double standard.”
Yasmin pursues her appeal with the same passionate energy that led her to run for student government in the first place. But she again finds her loyalties split, this time between her desire for justice and her love for her school. While the student affairs coordinator never budges, he and Yasmin do have a mutually respectful relationship. He also clearly treats her differently from the Jewish students, though: he forces her to accommodate the school but makes the school accommodate the Jewish holidays, even when accommodating Yasmin would be far easier than rescheduling entire school events.
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Yasmin is also worried about the statute of limitations—she only has a year to file a lawsuit—so she decides to run for student government again, this time for the office of vice president. This year, the application includes a new line: “If elected, I agree to attend all Student Organization sponsored events.” She does something she learned from a law textbook: she crosses out the clause and writes her own objections on a separate sheet, explaining that she would “attend the events within the guidelines of my beliefs.” The principal calls her in for a meeting and insists that Yasmin’s father, not the school, is to blame and has the power to choose whether she would resign or serve.
The school not only refuses to accommodate Yasmin, but now takes steps to explicitly write her out of its policies; since she is fighting the same institution that ultimately gets to decide her fate, she is powerless unless she appeals to some outside authority, much like Rasha’s family in immigration court or Sami debating whether to discuss his fellow soldiers’ racism with his superiors in Iraq. The principal, like the student affairs coordinator, simply assumes that Yasmin is being controlled by her parents rather than truly devoted to her faith.
Themes
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Yasmin decides to contact the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), but the school ignores CAIR’s letters. A Pakistani Muslim girl wins the vice president position and stays in the basement during the dances—she does not understand why Yasmin cannot do the same. Yasmin sends a hand-written plea for help to the CAIR. She believes that she is breaking “a racial barrier” and “mak[ing] a difference in the world” as a Muslim, even though her school rejects and ignores her; she still feels deeply hurt by America’s prejudice against Muslims.
The difference between the Pakistani girl’s decision to go to the dances and Yasmin’s belief that she cannot shows that there are a variety of ways to be Muslim and that faith is ultimately an individual matter, based on which interpretations and authorities a believer trusts. Yasmin continues to see her struggle for accommodation as a microcosm of Muslims’ broader social effort to forge a place for themselves in American society.
Themes
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The next school year starts in September of 2001. On the morning of the 9/11 attacks, the school falls into chaos but Yasmin goes to the Leadership room and has an understanding, productive conversation with the members of student government: “if Muslims did this […] then they didn’t do it because of Islam.” Worried, Yasmin’s parents keep her home from school for a few days.
Ironically, in a moment of crisis Yasmin finds acceptance and understanding about her religion in the same organization that has excluded her because of it (perhaps the Leadership class is a microcosm of the United States as a whole in this sense, with its oscillation between including and rejecting minorities). Like her worried parents, Yasmin is clearly aware of how Islam is likely to be misinterpreted in the aftermath of 9/11 and has to play defense from the outset.
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Yasmin continues corresponding with CAIR and arguing her case with the student affairs coordinator; she also convinces her sister Mariam to run for freshman representative and add on the application that she will attend events “as long as it doesn’t conflict with our religious beliefs.” Mariam gets a letter from the Student Organization rejecting her addition to the application. Yasmin’s father threatens to sue the school, but he and Yasmin’s mother also insist that Yasmin is wasting too much time on legal research. Mariam, too, quickly gives up, but Yasmin decides to run for president the next year. CAIR contacts the school and then sets up a meeting with Yasmin and her father.
Yasmin’s parents continue to support her but also begin to worry that her campaign will distract her from her future—in reality, it turns out to be the beginning of it. Her sister, too, seems to think that student government is not a huge deal at the end of the day. But, of course, Yasmin is no longer just fighting for the student government seat: she is fighting for principles.
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CAIR’s attorney advises Yasmin to make notes of anything anyone mentions that pertains to her situation. They might have a case, he says, but it will cost thousands of dollars to bring to trial, and Yasmin’s father cannot afford this price tag. Yasmin notes when the student affairs coordinator lets Greek students out of a bodybuilding event because of a religious conflict and starts thinking about how to raise $20,000, calling lawyers in her spare time.
The tragic irony of CAIR’s proposition is that it takes an inordinate amount of money to claim the right to equality—which, of course, would prevent most oppressed groups from making that claim. So economically, too, equality is a right in theory but can only be claimed in practice by those who least need to do so. This parallels the way Yasmin’s school only selectively honors religious obligations for students from its most firmly-established religious communities.
Themes
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Yasmin goes with her family to watch the movie I Am Sam, in which a developmentally disabled man gets pro bono representation (a free lawyer, for the sake of the “public good”) in a custody battle for his child, and she realizes she can do the same. She soon discovers the organization Advocates for Children, which she immediately contacts. One of their attorneys, Jimmy Yan, enthusiastically takes up her case pro bono.
Just as Sami consolidated his feelings about the Iraq War after watching the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, Yasmin realizes how to make her case through a movie, which illustrates media’s power to shape debate about and encourage activism against injustices. This implicitly points to Bayoumi’s purpose in writing this book.
Themes
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During a phone call with Bayoumi, Jimmy Yan explains that racism in education often impacts “the most vulnerable members in our public schools” and notes Yasmin’s remarkable zeal in researching her case. After taking up her case, Yan first confirms with other attorneys at Advocates for Children that the guarantee of the free exercise of religion in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as legal precedent, should support Yasmin’s claims—especially since the school has changed the requirements for student government to specifically exclude Yasmin. Because the school makes exceptions for Greek and Jewish students but not for Yasmin, its “policy is neither neutral nor generally applicable.” He calls the school and considers filing a formal discrimination complaint—but the school quickly reworks its requirements to run for student government. Yasmin is elated.
Yan’s thoughts about structural racism in education again point to the gap between American ideals—equality before the law—and American realities—those whose pleas are not heard end up, unsurprisingly, unequal before the law. Again, this is a closed loop of discrimination: because they are marginalized, marginalized groups are not heard, which prevents them from fighting their marginalization. But Advocates for Children promptly resolves Yasmin’s year-long fight, further demonstrating dedicated legal activism’s ability to claim a voice for people who lack one. (This also happened in Rasha’s case—which could have gone much worse had her family lacked an attorney.) Crucially, what ultimately takes the school down is not merely its requirement that Yasmin go to the school dance, but specifically its double standard with regards to other students (and therefore the policy’s failure to be “neutral”).
Themes
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That spring, Yasmin runs for president, noticing that the school will now allow members of student government to “provide a reasonable justification” in case they cannot fulfill some of their duties. She collects 500 signatures instead of 100, just to be sure, and runs against “Andrew, a very popular Greek boy,” who makes his campaign entirely about her inability to attend events. Her speech, meanwhile, is about students’ rights. After two vote counts, the race is still too close to call, and the coordinator of student affairs tells her there would be one more count, although she has the right to ask for a public recount afterwards. She confirms her intention to ask for one, but later that day the coordinator calls her at home and explains that she has won the election by seven votes.
Yasmin’s second race for student council is an almost play-for-play recapitulation of her first one: even if she does not believe in herself, her peers do. Andrew’s focus on her inability to attend school events, however, shows that her battle for equality and recognition is not over: it has shifted from the formal domain of the school administration to the informal one of her relationships with her peers. Her emphasis on students’ rights and resolute decision to call for a recount demonstrate how her fight with the administration has helped consolidate her values.
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Yasmin is a well-respected and successful class president; the coordinator of student affairs even writes her a college recommendation, and they are still friends many years later. She finishes college in three years and, at the time of this book’s publication, is in a master’s program. Although Yasmin’s father always wanted her to be a doctor, she decides to go to law school.
Despite her protracted battle with the school, Yasmin manages to surmount the racial barrier that she spent years convinced would hold her back. And, like Rasha, she decides to translate her experiences into a future fighting injustice, holding American democracy to its promises of inclusiveness and equality before the law.
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