Muslims Ask Schools To Compromise
Parents, pupils seek test schedule change, lunch options, prayer time
By Liz F. Kay
Sun Staff
Originally Published November 18, 2002
A growing number of Muslim students and their parents in Howard and Montgomery counties are lobbying for compromises in school rules to accommodate their religious practices. At issue are scheduling of standardized tests on religious holidays, vegetarian options in school lunches and finding times and places to pray during the school day.
"These things are not just for Muslims," said Erum Malik, a member of the Howard County Muslim Council's education committee. "Whoever I talk to thinks we need to have more balanced school meals."
In Howard, Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and other county school officials have met with the group twice.
Since the beginning of the school year, members of the Muslim Council have served on the school system's curriculum, food service and calendar committees, as well as on the Equity Council, an advisory board of community members that reports to the superintendent.
The Muslim group is willing to learn how the school system works to achieve the necessary changes, said Anwer Hasan, council president. "We all understand this is going to take some time," Hasan said. "The first thing was to get engaged and understand the process."
Muslim parents in Montgomery County also have raised concerns.
At a school board meeting Oct. 28, they protested the scheduling of the Maryland State Functional Writing Test on a possible Islamic religious holiday. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so the holiday Eid al-Fitr, celebrating the end of Ramadan, a month of reflection and fasting during daylight hours, will fall on Dec. 5 or 6. The test is scheduled Dec. 4 and 5.
"Scheduling such a test on Eid day is like scheduling a test on Christmas Day or Yom Kippur," parent Samira Hussein said at the meeting. The Maryland Department of Education considers Muslim and Jewish holidays using calendars provided by those religious groups when scheduling standardized tests, spokesman Bill Reinhard said. But the religious calendar the state consulted said the holiday ends Dec. 6.
If the tests conflict with observances, students can take them at a later date, Reinhard said. But Hussein said that offer is also unfair to thousands of Muslim pupils. "Muslim students already miss a day or two of instruction so they can celebrate with their families," she testified. "By taking a makeup, they will further miss out on another day of instruction." Parents of Muslim students also worry about how rules allowing their children to miss school for religious holidays are applied. In most counties, including Howard, missing school with parental permission for a religious observance does not count against students when determining perfect attendance. But Malik noted that despite that policy, her daughter and two sons have been marked absent when they have missed school for holidays. The Howard Equity Council is expected to review the schools' longstanding religious observance policy soon, said Eileen Woodbury, a Howard County schools administrator who runs the council. Having policies set and promoted by the school system can help ensure equal treatment, Hasan said. He has daughters in elementary and middle schools and a son in the 10th grade.
"We wanted to make sure [any possible] changes could be made not on a school-by-school basis, but across the board," he said. The Mosque in America survey reports the estimated number of Muslims living in the United States is between 6 million and 7 million. A 2001 survey estimates that about 50,000 Muslims in Maryland attend religious services at a mosque on holidays. Leaders of the Howard Muslim group estimate that between 4,000 and 5,000 Muslims live in the county. A significant portion is believed to be younger than age 18. Most of the time, students such as Malik's daughter Anum, a sophomore at Centennial High School, say they are able to balance their school and their faith. Anum doesn't change her schedule during the monthlong celebration of Ramadan. She spends lunchtime in the cafeteria with her friends, but skips the sandwiches. "It's just a normal day, basically," the 15-year-old said. Some older students arrange their time in school so they can go home for daily afternoon prayers. Some younger children pray at lunch or during free periods in administrative or guidance offices. The conditions are not always ideal, however. "Sometimes we have to pray on a hard floor," said Hasan's daughter, Aisha, a 13-year-old at Clarksville Middle School. In addition, "they have a lot of pictures in their office" that are distracting. Woodbury said meeting the need for prayer space may require creativity. "We're really not fabricating prayer rooms. Space in schools is not always what we want," she said. However, if acceptable supervision can be provided, "students may pray in a nondisruptive manner" when they're not in class, she said. School menus offer a cycle of vegetarian options, Woodbury said, but whether the students find those daily choices appropriate or attractive can't be guaranteed by school food workers.
The consumption of pork or products made with pork is prohibited in the Islamic faith. During lunch, Aminah Shourbaji, 10, a fifth-grader at Clarksville Elementary, said she has opened what she thought was a cheese sandwich and found ham inside. "I don't like those surprises," she said.
"In our school, the same lady touches the pepperoni that handles the cheese pizza," said Zain Hasan, Hasan's son and a 10th-grader at River Hill. If there's a slice of pepperoni, he will pick it off or ask for another, he said. Members of the Muslim Council also want to make themselves available to train teachers in the tenets of their religion so the teachers can provide accurate information about Islam in their classes.
Now, teachers often call on Muslim students to provide information about their practices and beliefs. This is a responsibility that Anum Malik and others say they do not mind. Anum and her two brothers, Shams, 14, and Ali, 17, have a stock of ready answers for questions from friends about their religion.
Ali said, "When Christmastime comes around, they'll ask you, 'What's your holiday?'"