Each year when summer draws to an end and my four children prepare for the beginning of the school year, like many mothers who work from home, I’m elated. I can stop my summer job of refereeing sibling fights, yelling at the kids to wake up, clean up or find something productive to do. My annual existential crisis seems to fade away the moment the kids leave the car with their backpacks in tow for the first day of school.
But not this year. This year, I’ve been anxiety-ridden about what the following school year will bring.
This year, my two middle-schoolers and two lower-schoolers will begin their educational journey at a new school, a school where the majority of children don’t look like them and where my middle school daughters are the only ones wearing hijab on a K-12 campus.
And I’m terrified.
My fears aren’t unfounded. A study conducted by the Institute for Social and Policy Understanding found that 42 percent of Muslims with children in K-12 schools reported faith-based bullying, making them twice as likely as their peers to be the subject of bullying. Thirty-six percent of hijab-wearing respondents in a survey conducted by the California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations reported “having their hijab tugged, pulled or other forms of offensive touching.”
Recently, Cornerstone Christian School in my home state of Texas, rejected Pamela Moubarak’s application for high school because of her Muslim faith. She had moved from Lebanon to live with her mother and stepfather three days before visiting the school.
Three years ago in a neighboring school district, 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, an aspiring MIT student, was handcuffed, arrested and interrogated by police outside the presence of his parents for creating a hoax bomb, when in actuality he’d engineered a clock out of a large pencil case. And while the police dropped all charges after determining the clock Mohamed built was just that – a clock, Police Chief Larry Boyd stated, “We live in an age where you can’t take things like that to school. Of course, we’ve seen across our country horrific things happen, so we have to err on the side of caution.”
Another words, it was completely acceptable for law enforcement and the school administration to treat a studious kid with heightened suspicion, because of his religious identity. This not an isolated incident.
For six years, my kids and I drove over forty miles, a commute that often took more than an hour in Dallas traffic, so I could keep them in an environment where they didn’t have to face the daily identity challenges intrinsic to being a person of color and a Muslim. They weren’t subject to overtly racist tropes or on the receiving end of seemingly innocuous (but implicitly racist) questions like, “Okay, but where are you really from?”
This cocoon, though artificial, allowed them to discover authenticity in their skin and spirituality. My daughters made the decision to wear hijab on their own in an environment that encouraged personal agency over their bodies rather than conformity to societal norms. Many of their peers did not share their religious beliefs or dress, but they respected it.
Our long car rides gave ample opportunities for us to have candid conversations about racism, colorism, feminism and Islamophobia amongst other social constructs of oppression. But these were –isms that they learned about pedantically, not experientially. With the President making statements like, “I think Islam hates us” or demanding a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, and later crafting an Executive Order effecting family friends in furtherance of that goal, there was no way to avoid these discussions.
We made the decision to switch schools when my eldest aged out and I concluded two schools in different cities wasn’t sustainable. This decision was met with a lot of pushback – tears, anger, fear of bullying, and being ostracized for being weird and different. Particularly in the middle school years, kids are at a crossroads physically, emotionally and hormonally. They’re discovering who they are, defining their value system, and forging deep friendships for help along the journey. It’s difficult enough within a familiar environment, without fighting societal stereotypes and prejudices. We all feel woefully unprepared for the paradigm shift.
Naturally, I’ve spent the summer anxiously wondering whether I’m making the right decision and what both the short- and long-term impact will be on the kids’ psyches, for both overt and discrete forms of bigotry, which they most certainly will experience. Then I’m reminded, thirty years ago I was an awkward eight-year-old girl entering a new school, a predominantly white Episcopalian school, where both daily chapel services and weekly bible classes were mandatory. I’ve often joked that I’m a hundred percent Muslim, but I’m also fifty percent Episcopalian. The math is admittedly eccentric and breaks the mold, but it’s a reflection of the beautiful and complicated mosaic of my experiences.
That new school year, in the third grade, I met my best friend in a friendship that blossomed and is commemorating three decades this year. I was surrounded by friends of other faiths who empowered me to wear hijab and supported me at the age of 16, when I was sure of my faith, but unsure of myself.
My richest life lessons have come from being different – the daughter of immigrants, brown and Muslim.
Those experiences may not have always been comfortable, growth rarely is, but they’ve molded me in my advocacy, my profession and also in my parenting.
So, I’m making the decision to throw out the anxiety that plagued my summer and gear up for a year of empowerment at our new school, whether that comes from the within the curriculum or outside of it. It’s time to lean in.
Huma Yasin is an attorney, author of the forthcoming book, Conspiracy: The True Story of the Fort Dix Five, and co-founder of Facing Abuse in Community Environments, and a board member of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of Council on American Islamic Relations. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.