Opinion: Commentary: Respecting the Feelings of 'Other’

When I was in elementary school back in the ’80s, I came to school after celebrating Eid and closed my sweaty hands into fists. I was trying to hide the henna designs on my hand.

But a girl noticed, scrunched up her nose in disgust, and asked me. “What is that orange stuff on your hand?” “is that a disease or something?” I shook my head and muttered under my breath, “not unless a disease forms pretty flower and teardrop designs.”

Back then, knowledge of Islam was minimal. Teachers were unaware of Ramadan or Eid. It got tiring explaining to kids why I was fasting and that, no, I could not even drink water.

Then September 11th happened.

Islam became the new headline. People swarmed bookstores looking for Qur’anic sources about terrorism or jihad. They pointed to the oppression of women in hijabs. They misquoted and misled. Anyone brown or “Middle-Eastern” looking became a suspicious person who might be carrying a bomb inside their jacket.

I bought into the negative hype myself, becoming defensive, and internalizing the responsibility of being the sole representative of my faith everywhere I went. As an American-born and raised girl, I was suddenly being treated like an “other.”

I began learning my civil rights and advocating for myself. I trained FBI agents and police officers on Islam. I spoke up at schools, to educate teachers about the Islamic faith and make teachers and coaches aware of students who were fasting during classes, exams, track meets, and games. Some educators listened and others shook their heads meaning, “this is not my problem.”

I hoped my children would have it better than I did. But as students at Fairfax County Public Schools, they still feel like they have to hide who they are or choose between spiritually significant days and tests and schoolwork. Standardized tests, like the SOL’s are still scheduled during the month of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid. Children are still receiving the message that their religious needs are, “not my problem” by school leaders.

In an effort to advocate for my son and other Muslim kids, I joined the board-appointed Fairfax County Public School’s religious task force committee. I hoped that FCPS administrators and board members would find just and equitable solutions for the many Muslims across our county.

But my experience trying to represent a minority community within the school system left me feeling appalled and heartbroken. I felt I was again the “other” in our public school community.

I was disheartened watching the FCPS board debate and decision against closing school on four days coinciding with major faith groups in our community. Seemingly educated people displayed a complete lack of understanding about the people of diverse faiths in our community.

Muslims shouldn’t be measured by our absences during Ramadan or Eid. We should be recognized as people who give back in charity during this time and ask our children to do the same. On these days, we reflect, rejuvenate and model for our children the importance of gratitude, forgiveness, and a connection with something greater than ourselves-lessons that are as valuable as the ones they learn inside the classroom. We aren’t statistics in a database: We are Muslim families, who like our Christian friends would like to spend time with our loved ones on our most holy days, especially after a tumultuous year of losses.

Honoring the holy days of diverse faith communities provides an opportunity to create awareness and cultural sensitivity. Maybe teachers or students who have never met a Muslim, or who don’t know about Islam, will pause and ask, why are all these friends gone today? Perhaps students will learn to respect a classmate who is fasting, or not to pull off a hijab. Maybe it will teach someone that Islam is more than just a headline or a stereotype.

FCPS prides itself on being diverse, but diversity is more than a bullet point on letterhead. In Islam, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says that our words and actions should be the same. FCPS needs to heed these words and truly listen to the soul and the needs of their faith-based communities.

— Farah Ahmad is a Fairfax County parent and a member of leadership at the McLean Islamic Center.

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