A few weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to my colleagues in education. I had been thinking about writing this letter for a long time. It is something that has been eating at me for years. I wrote the letter prior to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, so that it reflects more of a “normal” Ramadan. Sadly, the vast majority of mosques are closed this year, and Ramadan looks and feels very different. Many of us [Muslims] are mourning the loss of breaking fast with friends and family, going out for our predawn meals, night prayers at the mosque, and other community practices and customs that serve to bring us closer together. Nonetheless, I share this letter with you, so that you might gain a greater understanding of Ramadan, and use your understanding to create spaces of belonging for your Muslim students.
I need you to listen up (and this might be a tough one to hear): From April 23rd – May 23rd, Muslim families all around the world will be observing the holy month of Ramadan. If you don’t know what Ramadan is, it is a month in the Islamic calendar where Muslims fast, pray, give charity, reflect on life and the afterlife, and come together as a community. The Muslim calendar is lunar based and moves back ten or so days every year. This year, for the first time in years in part of the country, Ramadan will take place entirely during the school year.
Ramadan is a big deal!
I started school based speech therapy 3 ½ years ago and began interacting with educators full time as a peer. I’ve had many meaningful and wonderful interactions with so many of them. I know so many teachers, SLPs, OTs, and specialists who have come to me with questions on how to help their Muslim/first generation students with a variety concerns.
But…this one…..this one is a rough one.
Educators, you have to start talking about Ramadan better. You have to be better for your students during Ramadan. You have to. It’s that important.
I have had teachers/SLPs/other professionals come to me complaining about students “having to fast” during Ramadan. They complain that their students are tired from being at the mosque until late at night. They complain that they are grouchy, that they are slow, that they aren’t participating in PE. They complain, they complain, they complain.
I’ve had teachers tell me that their students are “forced” to fast or pray. I’ve had teachers tell me that they think fasting is unhealthy….that it’s not normal….that it’s cruel.
Let me let you in on a little secret: most of your students (and I really do mean most of them) LOVE Ramadan. They are thrilled with the idea of fasting with their families. They argue with their mothers about being allowed to get up early enough to have pre-dawn meals with their families, they make compromises on how long and how often they can fast, whether or not they can go to the mosque to see friends that evening. They love it. It makes them feel connected to their culture, their faith, and their family.
I need you to hear me here: It is completely inappropriate for you to say to me (or to any one else) that you don’t like that your Muslim students are fasting or that you don’t like that Muslim students are tired from being at the mosque. You don’t get a say in the matter. It isn’t about you. It’s about them.
That’s not to say that I don’t get it. I know there are some families that seem to force young kids to fast/stay out late/etc. I know that it can make things harder for you. I feel for you. I really do.
So, here are some things you can do to make your Muslim students feel welcome to practice their faith in your school. *Under the new social-distancing guidelines, some of these actions may need to be adjusted.
- Invite a Muslim parent or student to give a presentation on Ramadan. Use this opportunity to teach your students about another culture, to teach them empathy for another student who might be struggling with feeling different, to teach them that our differences are not as interesting as our similarities.
- Speak to your school librarian about displaying books about Ramadan (including those by Muslim authors!) in the library. Let your Muslim students see books that reflect who they are and let non-Musims students satiate their curiosity and learn about what their friends do during this holy month. You can also do this via a virtual display, or daily book or author spotlight on your school’s website during social-distancing.
- Find out how your Muslim students would prefer to participate in lunch, recess, PE, etc. I know you don’t need more responsibilities on your plate. But, I still remember the woman who let me hang out in her office in 4th and 5th grade while I fasted and how comfortable it made me feel in my own skin. That little bit of compassion can be the thing that makes all of the difference. Offer your room for a lunch time nap or a quiet space. Make accomodations for children to pray their noon prayers. Make it easier for them. During times of distance learning, avoid online real-time instruction that takes place first thing in the morning.
- If you need to talk to a parent about a concern during Ramadan, please, please, please come from a place of ONLY compassion and concern without judgment. Muslim parents already carry the burden of having to defend including their child(ren) in the practice of fasting. Like most parents, the COVID-19 crisis comes with additional parental stress. Muslim families should not have to defend cultural practices, especially during an already difficult time. If you have concerns and need advice on what to say or do, please reach out to someone who might know.
- In many other schools around the nation, there is a concern around how to handle fasting during big tests. Many Muslims will fast during standardized testing. Again, I suggest that you find out what you can do to make things easier for your students within the parameters of testing guidelines and requirements.
- Remember that many adult Muslims observe Ramadan while maintaining full time jobs, parenting, studying, and living our lives. We started fasting at a young age and we’re honestly doing fine. When done properly, fasting is not unhealthy. We’ve been doing this every year for over 1400 years. You should not assume that a child does not want to fast and you should not ask them if they do or don’t.
- Exchange the Ramadan greeting- Ramadan Mubarak which roughly translates into “Happy Ramadan.” It helps. It builds connection. It really does. Under stay-at-home orders, right now is a good time to set up a supervised Flipgrid so that students can send special greetings to their friends who celebrate Ramadan.
Once the month is over, Muslims have a great feast, Eid ul Fitr. This celebration is just as important to us as Christmas or Easter. While most of the festivities occur on day one, Eid is actually a 3 day celebration where we Muslim feast, exchange gifts, and offer special prayers. If Eid occurs on school days, your students will be absent while they celebrate with family and friends!
Please take this as advice and not criticism. All of this is based on interactions I have had in my youth and in my professional life. I know you want what’s best for your students. Let me and other Muslim education professionals and/or parents help you find a way to do that.
Here are some resources that can help explain Ramadan in more detail:
PBS has additional teaching resources that you can use and adapt for online/distance learning.
Photo Credits – Featured Image courtesy of Connecter Magazine; Ramadan Lanterns ©iStockphoto.com/GHOSS
Sadaf Ali is a Muslim school based Speech Language Pathologist and mom. Sadaf originally wrote this open letter to her local education community to provide guidance around community support and inclusion during the holy month of Ramadan. This letter has been edited and additional resources were added based on conversations that began around the original post that appeared on FB in March 2020, and to provide additional support around virtual/distance learning.