Thursday, July 01, 2010

Recognizing Muslim Holidays in Public Schools

My experience in High School as a Muslim was overall a pretty positive one, albeit at the time I didn't wear hijab. Most teachers and administrators were as accommodating to my needs as a Muslim as they could be.

During my four years in high school there were at most seven or eight observant Muslims at any one time, and at least a couple dozen Bosnian and Albanian Muslims who chose to blend into the masses. For the group of us 7 or 8, which included two white American converts, we were made to feel quite comfortable. We were given a space to pray at school in a dressing room backstage of the auditorium. We were also given special hall passes so that we could make our prayers at the appropriate time of day. At lunchtime, the lunch ladies always heeded my request for a clean change of gloves and a fresh package of turkey yet to be contaminated by the nearby ham before assembling my sandwich. The no headwear rule was waived for those girls who did choose to cover their hair, and gym uniforms were allowed to be modified so that we could be as modest as we felt comfortable. There was always a healthy curiosity amongst the teachers and many students which reassured us kids that we were right where we belonged. Yes, all of this was after 9-11. I was in the graduating class of 2006.

The only time I ever really perceived a problem was when our holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr rolled around. It wasn't really a huge problem, but more of an inconvenience. We were allowed to leave school with an excused absence so long as we provided a written note from our Imam with the coming of each holiday. What this meant was we didn't receive any penalty for missing school, but we still had to take the risk of missing out on important lectures, tests, and on at least two unfortunate occasions, final exams. I wasn't exactly the most serious student in high school, and skipped classes with reckless abandon whenever possible. My other Muslim friends weren't like me though. With each Eid they had to weigh their options to decide whether or not they could afford missing classes, excused or not. Often times, skipping Eid celebrations was academically the smart decision, so that's what they did.

I always just thought "well, that's the way it is." Of course my friends and I joked around about how cool it would be if everyone could just take Eid off like Christmas or Easter, but we never considered this in any sort of serious way.

That's why I was shocked to read the headline "NYC Muslims Push For School Holidays" in my newsfeed on Facebook. I had no idea that there was a real, organized movement trying to get Muslim holidays onto school calendars. I thought this stuff only existed in teenage imaginations.

As I read further into the article I was even more shocked when I found that about a year ago the city council voted almost unanimously in favor of including the Eids on the New York City Public School calendar. It's not just a handful of Muslim students and parents, but the real decision-makers; people with some amount of authority are backing this movement to provide Muslim students with the same privileges as their Christian and Jewish counterparts. In NYC, Yom Kippur is a recognized holiday in which students take off school.

I suppose this was all so shocking for me because I'm from a school district with only a handful of Muslims; from a place where it honestly wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to recognize Muslim holidays. At my high school, we didn't have any Jewish holidays off either.

But in a place where 1 in 8 students is Muslim, like in NYC, it does make sense that the Eids be recognized holidays. It seems nonsensical, in fact, for 12% of the students to have to weigh out whether or not to miss class. And if the majority do decide to skip school in order to celebrate Eid, that would certainly be a whole lot of tests that teachers would have to reschedule.

The only thing keeping this dream from becoming a reality for NYC Muslims is Mayor Bloomberg who opposes the idea on the basis of "if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won't be any school." I get the point that he's trying to make. Back in 2006 when similar decisions had to be made in Skokie, Illinois, then school board president James McGowan said "we can't be in the business of deciding which religions are important enough to be acknowledged and which are not."

The point I'm making is, maybe in Machesney Park where I went to school, in a city without any sizable Muslim or Jewish populations, recognizing Muslim or Jewish holidays wouldn't be worth the efforts at this juncture in time. But in places like Skokie where over 10% of the students are Jewish, or in NYC where 12% of the students are Muslim, the decision kind of makes itself. If that many students in NYC are Muslim, it's probably fair to assume that a similar percentage of the teachers are Muslim as well. Recognizing Muslim holidays in NYC public schools, and in other school districts with large populations of Muslims seems like the right thing to do, and the smartest thing to do. For those Muslim kids from smaller towns, they'll have to just keep dreaming, and taunting their friends about having an extra day off that everyone else doesn't get.

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