|Volume 8, No 1, Spring 1998|
My almost 6 year old son looked pretty distressed the other day when I picked him up from his kindergarten. Trying not to sound too anxious, I asked how his day was. After a period of silence, he said two of his friends made fun of me, his mom. They asked him what I was wearing over my head, and laughed at him when he answered "a skirt" (He confused skirts and scarves :-)...
Although I must admit the idea of wearing skirts on someone's head is quite funny, and probably this was what made the kids (and me) laugh, I have been expecting such an incident to happen for a while.
Living in a society that embraces different norms of behavior as acceptable and normal than our own has been a burden for everyone in my family. I have learned quickly to ignore stares, or to answer gracefully and with humor when I am asked whether I was a nun while I was 8 months pregnant with my second son (!!) or whether I felt hot wearing all that in California summer, or how I coped with long days of fasting. I have learned to use the curiosity of my colleagues at work or people on the streets, playgrounds, grocery stores or libraries to inform them about my religion. I should admit I find being different "cool", rewarding and challenging. But trying to raise my son (and now sons) as Muslims in the U.S. has been a pretty challenging experience.
Of course, we have used every opportunity to let him know who we are, why we are proud to be Muslims, how lucky we are to be Muslims, and how a Muslim should behave to the best of our knowledge. Early on he learned how two angels were recording good and bad deeds. He learned about stories of Adam (a.s.), Moses (a.s.), Jonah (a.s.), and Muhammad (s.a.w.). He is intrigued by the magical powers given to Moses (a.s.). The favorite part of the story of beginning of revelation of Quran is when Muhammad (s.a.w.) was scared of the angel Gabriel (a.s.) and took refuge in his bed under covers, not unlike himself after a scary dream. He identifies Jonah's (a.s.) staying in the fish's belly as a "time-out". He wonders aloud about the powers of Allah (s.w.t.) whether He is everywhere, whether He can do this or that. All of these are pretty normal in the life of a young Muslim child, except for one thing: Most of his friends are not like him.
Muslim parents living in non-Muslim societies develop different coping mechanisms to adapt to their surroundings. There are differences in interpretations of how a Muslim should conduct him/herself in such societies, how different they should be from followers of other religions. The real difficulties in child raising surface when children start attending day care or reach their school years. Not every community have Islamic schools or even Islamic Sunday schools. Sometimes parents choose or have to send their children to public and non-religious private schools. In addition to the task of teaching youngsters about Islam by themselves, many parents are left to their own devices when it comes to dealing with Halloween, Christmas or Easter activities, that are heavily embedded into school programs. Proponents of "they-are-just-kids" school argue that these celebrations have been very much commercialized and secularized, there is hardly any hint of religiosity at schools and society in general. They do not find it problematic to let Muslim children go "trick or treat"ing, or sitting on the "Santa"'s lap in the shopping mall asking for gifts, singing hymns about Christmas in the school chorus as a part of "Year End" celebration, or going on egg hunts on the Easter day. They point out that the celebrations are mostly about dressing up, receiving and giving gifts, doing the "children stuff". Some others counter this attitude ignores the fundamental reasons why these events take place, remind that the duty of a Muslim to be distinguished as a Muslim with his/her conduct and appearance, and question how our children will develop a Muslim identity if their celebrations are shunned by festivities of other religions.
As a family we decided early on that our children should not join in celebrations if it has any religious or pagan connotations, such as Halloween, Christmas, Easter, etc. However, not until my son reached age three that did it occur to me how much he will be missing from our own Holy Day experiences: The Ramadan, the preparation for Eids, the food, the ezan, the mosques looking pretty in lights, the drums before Sahoor (Ramadan breakfast), the visits to family members and neighbors, candy and money received between the folders of handkerchiefs... My son was not only to resist the fun and glitter of the celebrations of other cultures, if I didn't try, Ramadan and Eids would not have much to look forward to either.
I am not alone in my quest to raise my kids as good Muslims, and desire to make our Holy Days special for them. Many mothers and fathers around us and in other communities are struggling with the same questions. Internet discussions are being held on how we can enhance our children's experiences as Muslims in this society. Many parents are searching for ways to make them feel good about themselves and their religion, while emphasizing they are a part of this society as well and must take a harmonious constructive role in it instead of isolating themselves. Families are trying to establish their "new traditions" on these celebrations. During Ramadan and Eid Days from hanging balloons and lights around the house, to special meals, from taking the day off and participating in the Salat-ul Eid to trips to friends and amusement parks, from giving small gifts to kids to doing something charitable for the needy Muslims, many of us are trying to find ways to mark these days as special and fun for our young ones in an environment that very few participates.
In the past five years, thanks to the efforts of caring and hardworking Muslim men and women, many books, video and audio tapes and internet sites became available on subjects that interest Muslim children. Informative books and video tapes on Islam and Muslims have started to find their way to the public libraries. Some parents and other volunteers have begun to take the time to show up in their children's classes and give presentations on Islam and our festivities. Activist groups have begun campaigns for inclusion of Muslim Holy Days on radio and TV stations and printed media (to the delight of my son recognizing symbols of Muslims on "regular" TV), some even succeeded to convince a few colleges to recognize these days as vacation days. Organizations such as ICNA even published a book giving practical tips on how to raise our children in North America.
Muslims of North America come from many different cultural backgrounds and more than half are first generation immigrants. Having such diversity unfortunately brings problems in uniting as a single group. However, there are many examples around us on how as soon as these differences are set aside and the community embraces one another ,as it was ordered by our prophet (s.a.w.), our children benefit tremendously. The mosques, Islamic schools, Islamic summer camps, in addition to providing spiritual knowledge and being a sanctuary to every Muslim, offer great opportunities in bringing together little ones and making them feel that they are not alone. As Muslim children growing up in North America, they have a lot more things in common than their parents, not only in religion, but also in culture. They will be the leaders and members of the next generation of Muslims in North America in the new century. Giving a chance for them to get to know our religion and love another may help them join as a single group in the future in this diverse society and maintain our way of life and identity.
Providing a Muslim environment in North America for our children is no easy task. As the famous African proverb goes "it will take a village", in our case, all of us Muslims in our communities, to raise them with a strong sense of who they are. Instead of losing heart due of the enormity and challenges of this task, I believe, we all must attack it in any way we can. Each and every one of us can contribute, be a parent or not, by staying in touch with our religion and Muslim community, being a good example to our children and youth around us as practicing Muslims, by joining mentor programs, by volunteering at Islamic schools and camps, by helping to build Islamic full time schools with excellent academic programs as well as an Islamic curriculum, by providing opportunities for our youngsters to spend time with each other. There are so many things we can do: We can donate informative books and tapes giving lectures and presentations on Islam in our neighborhood schools and libraries. We can be informed advocates on issues relating to Islam in any forum from home to workplace, from playground to schools, from universities to libraries. By being visible, exemplary, honest citizens in our communities we can help create and distribute positive messages about Islam and Muslims. Some of us can write children books, or songs for our children to share with their classmates, others can create web sites. We can participate even by bringing sweets to a class or workplace on our Holy Days. In whichever way we can, we must shoulder this great responsibility. Our future in this world and in the Other will depend on our efforts.
Yes, the task is difficult and time consuming... But I take heart at the remarkable ability of our children to remember what they are taught: It brought me tears of joy to overhear my son telling his little friend they could not play gods in the Hercules movie as he suggested, "because", he insisted, "there is only one God!"