On World Hijab Day

Taboo topics are integrated in to an ESL teacher’s job. You’d be surprised how many different aspects of culture need explicit teaching.

Things like-

  • No, it’s not ok to bring a knife to school to sharpen a pencil.
  • Yes, you wear deodorant every day.
  • No, you don’t stand on the toilet.
  • No, you can’t eat the chicks that we hatched in class.
  • Please don’t try to kill the show-and-tell chameleon with a book, it’s someone’s pet.
  • The phrase “sexy time” isn’t another way to say good morning, someone was being mean to you.

A few months ago one of my students ran into my classroom. I teach middle and high school, so I’m not used to kids moving very quickly in general, let alone to get to class.

She was all out of breath when she started talking. “Please just say yes, Miss.” were the first things out of her mouth. It turns out that she had heard about an event called World Hijab Day, in which women of all faiths are invited to wear and experience the hijab, and wanted to see if our school could participate.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, the girl who ran into my classroom is a Yemeni Muslim and dresses in the hijab every day.

There is a very clear protocol to follow when it comes to organizing an event at school. There is an application process in which the students have to map out an explicit purpose to their event or club, which goes directly to the Principal. The students must run and organize the activity themselves, with the oversight of a teacher in an advisory role. This is especially true when it comes to events that may include reference to religion.

The student, as well as a few of her friends, crafted a beautifully written letter outlining their proposal.

“ We just want people to understand who we are, where we’re from, and why we wear the hijab. We want students to be able to ask us questions in an open way and not be embarrassed.”

After the administration approved the event, we got busy planning. I was prepared for some controversy; after all, Islamophobia is rampant in our country at the moment. When I brought this up to my students they echoed what they had outlined in their proposal and assured me that they are used to people “judging us before they get to know us, simply because of our hijabs.” and that they wanted to do something to change that.

We had about a month to get organized and things went smoothly until the day before. About halfway through the day my phone started to ring incessantly. I had a message from a co-teacher of mine — “Check your email immediately.” Apparently someone in the suburban community had found out about the event and taken issue with it.

I sat at my computer, horrified, as I tuned in to a local radio entertainer who compared my students to ISIS and railed on about the “separation of church and state”.

The lies just kept coming. “ You can’t talk about God in school. We can’t say the pledge because of God, so why can a school preach Islam? The school is FORCING girls to wear the hijab. Muslims are violent people who oppress women.”

All of a sudden an event that consisted of a table in the cafeteria before school became a battleground for Christian religious zealots. News stations started calling, the internet exploded, and I had to shut off my personal cell phone because of the lunatic calls I was getting. Even those things were nothing compared to the ignorant comments that popped up online.

“These people are spreading jihadism into Christian communities.”  “How about WEAR A SLAVE CHAIN DAY.” “How disgusting and irresponsible for any educator to encourage a child to wear a symbol of oppression.” “When is female circumcision day?” (And these are the ones that I can find that are the least offensive and free from expletives.)

Culture is woven with religion. The two go side by side. To divorce one from the other, especially when it comes to immigrants, is almost impossible.

Fortunately, in the United States we have something called the 1st Amendment which grants all people freedom of religion. Freedom of religion. Not freedom of religion for just Christians.

The same rights granted to Christian groups that promote and hold events such as “See You at the Pole” in which they pray around the flagpole in the school yard, are also granted to groups from other religions. In fact, in almost all cases, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause are enforced to protect Christian groups that use school spaces to organize such events.

The only reason the critics of the event brought up the separation of church and state is obvious — the event was led by Muslim students.

As a case in point, for the past three years I was the teacher advisor to a Three Kings’ Day event for a bilingual program that actually contained a play about Jesus. No one ever said a word about it.

The hate seething beneath the surface of our country is palpable. Our fear of “the other“ is so strong that people can take something as simple as three girls wanting to share their cultures and bastardize it into a persecution of “Christians”.

News flash- Christians aren’t persecuted in this country or in our public schools. School holidays are organized around the Christian holidays. The pledge is still read in public school, and yes, it still mentions “god”. Students don’t feel the need to hold an event explaining why they wear a cross to school because it is such a common thing. Furthermore, if they did feel the need to hold such an event, they could — because the law applies to everyone — that’s the beauty of the United States.

World Hijab Day was more of a success than I could have ever imagined. Partially because students became aware of the ignorant, bigoted comments online and took a stand by donning the hijab in solidarity for their fellow classmates.

As I walked through the halls, awash with colored headscarves,  I heard some of the most open and profound conversations about culture, religion, racism, and acceptance that I have ever heard —in school or otherwise.

I was given hope. These young people chose peace, understanding, and compassion rather than blind fear. Instead of shunning their classmates who wear the hijab, they not only embraced them, but defended them.

The students sent a message to our critics loud and clear that day- We aren’t afraid of each other and we won’t be afraid of you and your hateful message.

I speak to those same critics when I say if ever there is a time that your child wants to express their own beliefs, be glad that teachers like me and my colleagues exist. Teachers who stand for the rights of all of our children, and not just some of them. Because if we judged your children based on your hateful ideologies, would understand what it really means to be persecuted.

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