Finding an Islamic identity in the 21st century
The uniqueness of working at an international setting within an Arabic and Islamic society has many perks as well as challenges.
As the world is becoming more globalised, we have been forced to open our eyes to many societies, cultures and belief systems. It has become incumbent on us to become inclusive of belief systems but also, to find pride and acceptance in what we individually have to offer the world in return.
In my sixteen years of teaching experience, I have had the privilege of teaching children from all walks of lives and a few students always stood out to me. These were the children whose identity was so deeply rooted and they did not sway regardless of the societal and peer pressures they found themselves in.
I taught Korean and Chinese children who joyously ate their meals using chopsticks at school, Iranian students who chatted away during their break times in their native language and Muslim girls who went to prom wearing hijabs.
However, there was one particular Muslim hijabi girl who I particularly admired. After auditioning for a role, she was selected to be the lead actress in a school production. This girl found an elegant way to include her hijab in her costume and the teachers were flexible enough to edit the play in a way that would not compromise her religion.
Having said that, I recall when I was younger and being challenged in school. I felt embarrassed to eat my meals at school because my mother would pack me hot meals instead of simple sandwiches and I avoided any activity that would question my hijab. However, I did manage to get into the school sports team but only played when I knew that it would be a girls-only match.
Being at different international schools as a child – where my identity was questioned more than accepted – I learned to hide between the cracks of society so as not to be noticed. But considering the unique education system in the UAE, Muslim students are better able to stand for their beliefs as it is promoted in their everyday activities.
Muslim students have Islamic studies classes where they are taught about their beliefs but also taught to interact with others without discrimination. Just as other celebrations are evident in the schooling environment, Muslim students particularly have many opportunities to share their knowledge and understanding about their identity.
During Ramadan, I have had the privilege of working with parents from different religions, ethnicities and backgrounds in promoting the spirit of Ramadan. Several parents have given up their time and money in order to help prepare for this auspicious month. Muslim students are getting ready to share their understanding of what Ramadan means to their peers. This all helps in shaping young minds by knowing that we are all connected in one way or another, and in turn, this promotes a more homogeneous environment in which children do not feel uncomfortable in being who they are.
Many Muslim parents have wondered whether to segregate their children in Islamic only schools or to immerse them into an international environment. In my opinion, we are the best advocates when we have to stand up for our beliefs. Children who grow up in international schools are most likely to have a healthy interaction with the world around them as they would have managed to see a diverse world and how it works.