Tragic Beating Death of Shaima Alawadi Feeds Into Trayvon Martin Race Debate

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Not Shaima — rather a student in Turkey, Iraq's neighbor, where the hijab is a hot political issue. (FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images) Photo: FETHI BELAID/2012 AFP

Yesterday at 3 p.m., just outside San Diego, a family of Iraqi immigrants ended the life support that had been keeping their mother, 32-year-old Shaima Alawadi, alive since Wednesday, when she was found beaten bloody in the dining room of her El Cajon home, with the house's glass door smashed apart. She'd been repeatedly hit in the head with a tire iron, her 17-year-old daughter told local news sources, and next to her body a note was found: "Go back to your own country." While police say they are investigating the possibility of a hate crime and are calling it an "isolated incident," Alawadi's tragic death has already become part of the increasing furor surrounding the "self-defense" killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was carrying nothing more threatening than a bag of Skittles and iced tea, by a still-free (and still gun-carrying) neighborhood watchman.

On Twitter, hashtags #RIPTrayvonMartin and #RIPShaima are showing up together in hundreds of messages like "hood or hijab — this needs to stop." One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi groups are being organized while One Million (and One Hundred) Hoodie marches are planned for Illinois and New York today. Racism and hate, the signs and commenters say, are to blame in both tragic cases.

Indeed, the national conversation has largely boiled down to the two items of clothing that Trayvon and Saima were wearing at the times of their deaths: the hoodie that Geraldo Rivera now infamously said was "as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was," and Shaima's hijab. But Rivera's advice that people simply avoid wearing hoodies (or, by the same logic, hijabs) to avoid being profiled misses a broader point, that people still profile the young-and-black and Muslim as dangerous.

We reserve the right to wear a hoodie in the rain and not be racially profiled and killed because bigots think that their appearance is suspicious, or threatening.

That's from a statement by the Reverend Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached), announcing plans to conduct today's Sunday services in full hoodie regalia.

Apart from the simple right to wear what we each see fit, the fiery (and, at times, inflammatory) language used to discuss the Shaima Alawadi killing online reminds us that the hijab is not just a fashion accessory but an identity marker for many who wear it. And it was that identity — Iraqi, Arab, Muslim — that got Alawadi killed. The note found by her body indicates that pretty strongly, and so does the note the family found a month earlier, as remembered here by Alawadi's eldest daughter.

A week ago they left a letter saying, 'This is our country, not yours, you terrorists,' so my mom ignored that, thinking [it was] kids playing around, pranking. And so the day they hurt her, they left it again and it said the same thing.

Except this family had lived in the United States for seventeen years. Most if not all of their five children were almost surely born here and therefore full American citizens. Which adds xenophobia to the racism that so many already see at work in Trayvon Martin's and Shaima Alawadi's deaths and that, normally pulsing below the surface of our national awareness, have now broken into a full-fledged debate.