“Can I Take the Hijab Off?”: Developing Safe Spaces for Somali Children in Mainstream Classrooms

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Sirad Shirdon

In September, my two nieces began school at a local Montessori school, a far cry from their previous school: a charter school in Columbus with questionable educational quality. The charter school she attended, like many in North Columbus, has a large Somali student population.  In recent years, Somali parents in the US have been increasingly turning to charter schools (typically with large Somali or Muslim populations) to educate their children. In Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the United States, 1 in every 3 Somali children is enrolled in a charter school (Brown, 2012). While such statistics are not available for Columbus, it would seem that the numbers are high. This rejection of mainstream public schools is based on a fear that Somali students are at risk for discrimination and will assimilate into school culture, thus losing their Islamic and Somali identities (Kapteijns & Arman, 2008).

While the charter school had problematic educational standards as well as a history of teachers who harbored disparaging views of Muslims, parents gravitated to this school because of the large Somali population. Somali parents place a high value on safe (educational) spaces, where students are free to express their identities. For Somali parents, such schools would ensure that children did not lose their Islamic and Somali identities – identities which they feel are endangered in mainstream classrooms. Research has supported this; in one study assessing Somali parental views on charter schools, most parents agreed that preservation of cultural identity was the single most important factor in considering schools for children (Hussein, 2012).

Due to the poor quality of the charter school, my nieces were enrolled in a Montessori school for the following year. From their family’s perspective, it was very important to enroll the two young girls in a fairly multicultural school. Currently, both of my nieces are in multicultural classrooms which include children from African American, Pakistani and South East Asian backgrounds. And yet, while the school is ethnically diverse, my nieces are the only Somalis and (visible) Muslims in the entire school.

How have my nieces fared in this new environment? Academically, they are enjoying the school. My niece often tells me she is learning so much, which was not the case in her previous school. Socially, my nieces have received comments from other students about their head scarves. In this environment, where their difference is more marked, curious students are asking about their headscarves. My niece relayed stories of what other students had said about her hijab.  On one occasion, she was doing a handstand in her gym class, when her hijab came off. My niece recalled: “kulaha (can you believe) they told me gymnastics would be easier without the hijab?!” Her mother was understandably upset at the children’s comments, something that would not have happened at their previous school. On one occasion, my niece came home and asked if she could remove her hijab. For this child, full acceptance in this space would occur if she did not have the hijab, a clear marker of difference. So what is to be done? Is there a safe learning space for my niece, where she receives an excellent education, while being in a space where her identity is nurtured and supported?

Mainstream classrooms can support children from minority backgrounds by teaching multiculturally. How can teachers teach multiculturally? According to Souto-Manning, “to teach multiculturally means to teach inclusively, to create spaces of possibility, to bring differences front and center in the life of the classroom” (2013, p.13). Good teachers are those that make an effort to learn about their students’ homes and community cultures and bring that into the classroom. By the time students arrive in our classrooms, they have learned to participate in different cultures, in their homes and communities. These ways of being, knowing and acting in these cultures, may sometimes conflict with expectations in the classroom culture, which can place culturally and linguistically diverse students at a disadvantage. My niece arrived to this school, as a participant in home and community cultures where the hijab is extolled and greatly valued. She has now entered a space where this is not the case, and it is up to teachers to ensure that she feels a full sense of belonging in this space. If such issues remain unresolved, they can negatively impact a child’s sense of self, which can later lead to negative associations with education and learning.

I’m glad to report that this Montessori school is making an effort to be more inclusive of my niece’s various cultures. For show and tell recently, my niece brought in a Qu’ran and was able to share it with the class. This was a proud moment for her, her first opportunity where she was able to share her religious beliefs with her class. The school has also been very receptive to my offer to train teachers and administrators about teaching Somali and/or Muslim children. This is a great first step in being more inclusive of children from multicultural backgrounds. Currently for Somali parents, a dichotomy has been created in terms of schools: schools which are supportive of children’s identities (often charter schools), and those that are not (mainstream, non-Somali, non-Islamic institutions). By working with mainstream classrooms to become more inclusive, we can ensure that Somali students are learning in spaces which are inclusive of their identities..

References

Brown,A. (2012, February 12). Somalis in schools: one in three chooses charters in Twin Cities. Twin Cities Daily Planet. Retrieved from http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/news/2012/02/13/somalis-schools-one-three-chooses-charters-twin-cities

Hussein, F. (2011). Charter Schools: Choice of Somali-American Parents? Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, 11(16), 150-163

Kapteijns, L & Arman, A. (2008). Educating Somali youth in the United States. Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, 4(6), 18- 43.

Souto-Manning, M. (2013). Multicultural teaching in the early childhood classroom. New York:Teacher’s College Press

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