Celebrating Ramadan: A Parent's Journey in the Public School System

As a parent, some of the most terrifying experiences we have to endure come through the moments when our children are most vulnerable. Considering the fact that children spend a good portion of their young lives in schools, our ability as parents to observe, protect and participate in their daily activities becomes limited. And when we try to create balance, as one parent did, the culmination of hate and fear of the “other” manifests itself in the ugliest of ways.  I interviewed a wonderful woman, who we will call Karima. Karima, because it means giving and generous as she is, for sharing her experience with us. Her taking the time out to reflect on her family’s experience with the school district in which her children attend was an important lesson in identity for her and the journeys we all take as human beings.

Karima found her way to Islam through self-reflective ponderings of identity based on the world that was taking shape around her. September 11th was the defining moment for her as she watched the world tear down Muslims, after personally witnessing the second tower come down in New York. Karima is a convert to Islam and as a convert, she says that her embracing a religion that she grew to love also meant being the “odd woman out.” Within the community she lives, there is a sizable Muslim presence, so the schools have a good number of Muslim children too. She and her husband, also a convert, moved to an area where they felt their Muslim identity would be embraced in a collective, so life within it would be easier on them and their children. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Lacking the name and image of what Muslims were supposed to look like in a predominantly Arab neighborhood Karima felt the distrust of other Muslims where she sought refuge for her family.

One of the biggest problems within the Muslim community is the lack of trust and ethnocentric misgivings toward converts by Muslims of different ethnicities. This fractionalization is evident in who groups choose to worship with and which people are the founders of a mosque.  For example, Arabs, South Asians, African Americans and Turkish Muslims end up worshipping in spaces that are divided by ethnicity or the perception of race rather than on being Muslim solely. There are the occasional sprinkle of Muslims that attend regardless of the majority, but the tendency to gather with one’s own kind overrides our sensibilities and the embracing of minorities within our own Muslim spaces.

“Our ‘Eids are always lonely because we don’t really have a masjid that we feel connected to and no one invites us to eat with them. But alhamdulillah, we have each other so we do our best to make the most of these special days. We’ll visit different masjids on the two ‘Eids so it’s always a new experience and the kids get to see a bit more of Islam's beautiful diversity,” Karima explains in spite of the marginalization they have faced since their conversion.

Karima’s children have also faced bullying by their Muslim peers. “You can’t be Muslim because you’re not Arab” or “You’re half-Arab,” are some of the taunts they suffered at the hands of their classmates as they didn’t “fit in” among them. This learned behavior is a product of racialized perceptions that continue to drive wedges within the Muslim community. Categories of mosques that are Arab, South Asian or African American are also results of othering within the American Muslim experience. African American mosques historically existed prior to the founding of mosques that now serve the Arab and South Asian communities.  These mosques were not founded on need solely, but also an unwillingness to integrate with black Muslims because racial divides are a problem in groups that identify as brown. These classifications and divides perpetuate racism, class, patriarchy and fear of the other. Forgetting that we are being othered ourselves, within the context of a white supremacist America. Life for converts who are white, or LatinX for example, often bear the brunt of this type of casting out, as they are minorities within the larger Muslim groups already sub-divided by race, ethnicity or sect.

What message are school administrators sending to its Muslim students? They are telling them, perhaps unintentionally, that they don’t matter.

“This is heartbreaking because my husband and I are always emphasizing the beautiful diversity of Islam to our children. We'll often sit together as a family and watch videos of Muslims in different countries such as China, Russia, Japan, Mexico to emphasize that not all Muslims are Arabs (in fact, they're not even the majority) and that being an Arab doesn't make one "more Muslim,” said Karima. She and her family manage to navigate these difficulties in their daily life within the Muslim community but one day found themselves also contending with bigoted, non-Muslim members of their local public school community who targeted them for being Muslim.  

Karima’s son grew up observing the more common motifs of religious symbols at his school, where the holidays of Christians and Jews are acknowledged and even celebrated without any inclusion of Muslim holidays. Every winter, there would be Christmas trees and décor, holiday songs, gift exchanges, and even a visit from Santa. And there was the glowing menorah with the Star of David, prominently displayed on the counter of the school office for all to see. But during Ramadan or ‘Eid, there was nothing. The school never embraced the substantial number of Muslims that attend schools within the district.

This upset Karima a great deal. She felt that “a public school should be a secular environment where people of all religions—or no religion—feel included.  But if a school’s administration chooses to introduce religious holidays and symbols to the children and incorporate them into their classroom activities, they should be inclusive of all religions—not just one or two.”  Karima remained silent, concerned that her objections would be misconstrued and cause problems for the Muslim children and families at the school.

Her breaking point came one December when her son brought home a menorah and other Christmas symbols that he had colored in class. Karima couldn’t believe it. ‘Eid had come and gone a month earlier with no acknowledgement from the school yet her son was asked to color symbols of other faiths on the eve of their holiday. She could no longer sit by silently as the school blatantly disregarded its Muslim students.

“What message are school administrators sending to its Muslim students? They are telling them, perhaps unintentionally, that they don't matter,” Karima said with disappointment. As a result, Karima decided to speak to a school administrator to guide him on including Muslims in the school’s holiday celebrations the following year.

“I emailed the administrator and politely expressed my concern to him about this oversight. He replied that the elementary school class discussions focused on ‘...the symbols that the children might typically see walking in the community – such as a menorah, Christmas tree, Red envelopes for the Chinese New Year and others,’” said Karima.  Instead of agreeing that Karima made a good point about engaging the school in inclusivity rather than marginalization, the administrator denied Muslim visibility within the community—despite their unmistakable presence.

“I didn’t get angry. Instead, I channeled that disappointment and replied, ‘…having children participate in a class activity that features the symbol and holiday of one faith, without acknowledgment of other children’s respective religious symbols and holidays, only serves to deepen the religious and cultural divide that threatens to tear our country apart and will no doubt have a lasting impact upon their self-esteem.  As it is, non-Jewish and non-Christian students already feel marginalized by the current policy of closing public schools out of respect for Christian and Jewish holidays but not for those of other faiths.” Karima offered to provide the school with materials for next year’s ‘Eid Al-Adha because ‘Eid al Fitr would occur in the summer, when school was not in session.

“The administrator welcomed the gesture so I felt hopeful that things would change and was happy that I could be a part of it. So the next  day, I sent him an email with several links to Islam-themed coloring pages. The administrator thanked me and said that he would share them with the teachers for next year. In November of the following year, just before ‘Eid al Adha, I sent him a friendly reminder about the coloring pages  to make sure he was still on board with the idea and to see if he needed anything else. He expressed appreciation and said that he would pass the coloring pages along to the teachers and also asked if there are any special traditions associated with the holiday that they should know about. So I sent him  a brief summary of the meaning behind ‘Eid al Adha and how Muslims typically celebrate it. I was glad that the administrator was accommodating and open to suggestions. The week came and went, and on the Friday before ‘Eid, I asked my son if his class had worked on any ‘Eid coloring pages. They hadn’t. I was dumbfounded and disappointed but decided not to mention anything to the administrator, assuming that he had forgotten or that perhaps there wasn’t time for the teachers to distribute the coloring pages to the kids.”

A few days later, Karima received an email from an unknown sender that was riddled with derogatory and Islamophobic language. “F*** Mohammad. And f*** your gutter religion and horse s*** holiday. Keep it out of our school system. You are a terrorist mother f***** and along with all of your ilk will get your 72 w***** a lot earlier than you can imagine.” Shocked, scared and angry, Karima contacted the administrator.

“I was shocked. So I forwarded the email to the administrator and asked him if the name looked familiar, thinking that somehow, one of the parents might have heard about my idea and been upset about it. He said the name didn’t look familiar and that  he would ‘...forward this to the IT service center to see if this might have come as a result of someone hacking my account.’ I thanked him . Then the full impact of the email finally hit me.”

Karima began to fear for the safety of her family. Unsure of what to do next, she decided to file a police report after consulting with several Muslim organizations that actively supported Muslims being targeted because of their faith. “The police were courteous and sympathetic but couldn’t really do anything since the email was worded in such a way that wasn’t a direct threat and thus, not technically a crime. They did offer to knock on the culprit’s door and tell him/her to cut it out if they learn their identity. I thanked them, feeling somewhat reassured by their offer but still uneasy about the whole thing. I started to look over my shoulder wherever I went,” said Karima frustrated as she recalled the harrowing incident and the police’s inability to fully protect her and her family based on the nuances of language.

Karima continued her correspondence with the administrator. “The following day, I emailed him letting him know that I had filed a police report and asking him to notify the officer who took the report if he  got any leads. The administrator responded and said that he thought the email was ‘someone’s misguided attempt to blow off steam or vent a grievance.’” The fact that the administrator still did not express dismay at the email or the sender but rather dismissed all of it  as simply a misguided “grievance” was disturbing to Karima.

During this time, Karima suffered the loss of one of her parents and was struggling financially. Her experiences within the Muslim community and outside of it had become unbearable, causing her great anxiety and uncertainty. She felt like a minority within a minority, doubly suspect as the outcast within the Muslim community and now the target of hate. Karima felt like she had hit a wall with nowhere to run. The sender was out there somewhere, knowing who she was and where her kids attend school. Yet, there was nothing she could do about it but pray. Then one day, Karima opened up to a coworker about her harrowing experience. Her coworker reassured her that everything would be fine and proceeded to call his uncle, who just happened to be a private investigator. When his uncle heard Karima’s story, he was so moved that he offered his services to her free of charge. Karima’s prayers had been answered.

Within a few days, the investigator learned the identity of the culprit,  it was the administrator’s daughter. The daughter had gotten access to her father’s account without his knowledge, had seen Karima’s emails, and decided to put Karima in her place. It was  no wonder the administrator had been so dismissive about the email and the sender’s intentions. Karima realized that the administrator had been put in a very awkward position, one that all parents experience when children behave in ways that are contrary to how they’ve been raised.

However, this was on another level.  If this incident were made public, it could negatively impact the administrator’s reputation and even jeopardize his job. Karima did not want that because she had great respect for him and what he had accomplished at the school. She knew that forgiveness was the best and only way to move forward. But in order to forgive, she needed closure. So she asked the investigator if she could speak with the administrator’s daughter. “I wanted her to know that Muslims are real human beings, not terrorists and monsters like we’re portrayed in the media.” The investigator arranged a phone call between the two a few weeks later.

“The administrator’s daughter immediately began apologizing and I reassured her that it was OK, that I understood her  reaction was based on a misunderstanding of Islam, of me, and of my objectives. I told her that I forgive her and have no ill-feelings towards anyone. I even suggested that we meet up one day. It was a surreal experience but very pleasant. Alhamdulillah,” said Karima with a sense of mercy in her voice.  

“I felt a great sense of relief and closure after speaking with her . I also felt blessed to have been able to show her a glimpse of the mercy of Islam. True mercy is when one is in a position of power over another and has the ability to punish but chooses to forgive instead.” Karima ended her narrative with forgiveness. She said that things started to change at the school after her family’s experience.

“Now the students are  reading stories about Muslims in class, they’re having class discussions in which the Muslim children get to talk about Ramadan and the ‘Eid holidays. The school accommodates the kids who are fasting by excusing them from gym. I sent my son to school with the book “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” (which in itself is a milestone) and his teacher read it to the class. And more Muslim parents are involved in PTA activities, which is essential,” Karima said with enthusiasm. “But perhaps best of all, the two ‘Eids are now official school holidays! Now our children feel welcome and no longer have to choose between attending classes and observing their sacred traditions. Alhamdulillah.”

Karima’s experience is one of many, as the stories of Muslim children and their families pushing back against the wave of Islamophobia have become one of the biggest challenges to Muslims and society as a whole. What makes Karima’s story so powerful and provides the basis for dialog is the fact that she and her husband are converts coping with a religious community that has not been as welcoming as they imagined. The administrator, the Islamophobia and the bullying of their children was not the whole story, it is part of a complex system that has been fragmented by our own biases and assumptions.

During this Ramadan, as members of our religious group, we are obligated to confront our biases, racism, ethnic superiority complexes and seriously reflect on what it means to be part of the diverse body that makes us Muslim. If we cannot as a community face our own weaknesses and transgressions, then we should certainly not be so arrogant as to expect our grievances for accountability to be held above our own actions that have harmed and marginalized.

*name altered