Written by Mina Khan
Private Islamic schools: a place where many students find their American and Muslim identities not only by going through a typical school curriculum with other Muslims their age, but also by learning about their religion in depth. However, we often find that these schools fail to discuss important issues that our Muslim communities, unfortunately, consider taboo topics. There are many things that Islamic schools don’t teach the students that are extremely important. Here are six things Islamic school didn’t teach well enough.
1. Women’s Health
First thing’s first, the word “menstruation” and “period” were words of shame. No girl was supposed to speak about it nor was she allowed to show that she was going through it. If it ever came up in conversation, girls suddenly became quiet, while the boys made disgusted noises, as if the process was unnatural.
When cramps got too bad, girls were supposed to either “suck it up” or go hide down in the nurse’s office, after which they would get reprimanded for coming back to class because “intense stomach pain” isn’t something worth missing class for. Periods, in general, were never discussed in great detail and, typically, girls first heard about it at school in eighth grade. Girls who got their periods early sometimes had no idea what it was and were often just given a pad without any other information.
Our health classes were co-ed, which was a great move in the right direction, but we were simply given information on the scientific process, making it impersonal and awkward to discuss. Women’s health was never mentioned in great detail From things like hygiene and puberty to pregnancy and sex. For example, pads were sometimes scattered around the floor or flushed down the toilet because girls were never taught how to use them properly at school. Feminine hygiene is another thing that younger girls were reprimanded for, even though the school itself doesn’t teach them anything about it in the first place.
2. Sex Ed
Sex was labeled as a “bad word” and sometimes saying “sexual intercourse” could get you in trouble, too. When discussing sex for the first time, things were kept simple and possible infections and/or diseases were not openly talked about, neither were birth control, condoms or sexual health. It was believed that because the students were at an Islamic school, they would never be introduced to them. In this way, Islamic schools create a bubble where real-world issues are not talked about because they are deemed unimportant or, in some cases, irrelevant and, most importantly, taboo.
Keeping curious students in the dark about sex is incredibly problematic and dangerous. If our Islamic schools won’t teach us about sex education then students will find out from places and sources that may do more harm than good. Countless problems can arise because kids are not properly educated about not only sex itself but also the risks and diseases that can result from unprotected sex.
Girls, especially, are unaware of the different contraceptives that can be used and why they can be important. Not talking about sex until the day before you get married is unfair and quite frankly, stupid. I commend and sincerely appreciate the type of work HEART Women & Girls do by promoting “sexual health and sexual violence awareness in Muslim communities through health education, advocacy, research and training.” We need Islamic schools to step up to the plate and talk about sex education in depth because it should not be taboo.
3. Mental Health
Although mental health was discussed at school, it wasn’t considered an actual health concern. Instead of encouraging students to go and seek help, they blamed the student for not praying or doing dhikr. When someone had an eating disorder, they were labeled as “weak,” causing many students to hide it until it became too obvious. People used to skip lunch and pass out in the hallways, their weight suddenly falling at alarming rates. However, when they did receive attention, it was never labeled as an “eating disorder” – it’s just a “health concern.”
Suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety were scoffed at because that’s not something a “ true Muslim goes through.” People who had these thoughts were forced to keep it to themselves because the discussions at school about suicide would discourage the students to speak up about it. Things such as anxiety and depression were never considered and their symptoms were overlooked which resulted in kids not receiving the right treatment or help at school.
4. Sexual Assault/Abuse
There wasn’t a single person at school who could say “rape” without cringing or taking a pause and looking around the room awkwardly. Girls were told that there was a very low chance anything would happen to them because they wore hijab, while boys would make jokes about the topic, unaware about how serious it is and that there was a chance they could be a victim, too.
Sexual assault/abuse was barely discussed at school and when asked to have discussions about this topic, students were told that talking about these things were “inappropriate.” The lack of discussion on rape and sexual assault is the basis of ignorant victim-blaming in the Muslim community. Saying things like, “Oh you wear hijab so you’ll be fine” is shameful, incorrect and inappropriate. Rape can even occur within a marriage. Anyone can be a victim. Islamic schools’ inability to recognize that is deeply concerning and shameful on the Muslim communities we are a part of. Even the topics of domestic and verbal abuse were neglected. If it’s too shameful and taboo to talk about with students, why are there alarming rates of abuse and sexual assault in our very own communities? Many guys to this day think it’s okay to make rape jokes, and many girls are too ashamed of their experiences to talk to professionals about what happened.
I clearly remember having a discussion with my peers about the horrid jokes and not once did any of the boys apologize. Instead, the girls cried and apologized to the boys for calling them ‘dumb’ or ‘annoying’ as they made those jokes. It was that moment I sat, shocked at the different ways in which we treat boys and girls in our community.
There is also a trend in our community where if there is ever a case of sexual assault/abuse, the victim is usually the center of attention and the perpetrator is forgotten about. Typically, the victim is questioned for the clothing worn or how late he/she was out during the night. The victim, in turn, feels dirty and used because of the way the masjid/school dealt with it.
By keeping us out of the loop, not creating a safe space where topics like these could be discussed and essentially victim- and slut-shaming, my Islamic school was unable to convey how serious and important these topics are.
5. Women’s Rights/ Feminism
Once during senior year, we had a discussion about feminism. We were essentially told that feminism isn’t something that should be our “fight” because Islam already guarantees equal rights to both men and women. However, in this country and our so-called “Muslim countries” around the world, are women treated equally as men? Are women given all the rights they deserve?
Islam may guarantee equal rights for the sexes, but those rights many times go unenforced. As a result, women are still fighting to earn all their rights. So, yes, Muslim women are part of this “fight” because we are a part of this society and the only way to fix this issue is by coming together with other women and calling for change.
Not only that, but women’s rights was a joke at school. Whenever girls would bring the topic up, the guys would laugh and make jokes about how “sensitive” we were being. Quite interesting that people who have never been through our experiences have the audacity to discredit our struggles.
6. Colorism/ Racism
Walk into any Islamic school and you’ll notice that there are barely any Black students. That’s a big indicator of how colorism is prevalent in our Desi/ Arab majority communities. Even more disgustingly, the few Black students in school would receive crude comments passed off as “jokes” from students and teachers. For example, a comment that was said to a close friend of mine when he was messing around in class was, “I know what your people are like.”
Muslim communities love to hide their blatant and passive racism with the story of Bilal (RA), using him as a reason why they could never actually hate Black people. However, rarely did we acknowledge Black Lives Matter, police brutality, existing racism, etc. Dedication to justice never included Black Lives Matter or anything outside of preserving their Desi/ Arab Muslim identities.
Being a predominately Desi/Arab community, those individuals were also the only ones who assumed leadership roles in the community. When a Black person would come, they would suddenly be treated as “outsiders” and a minority within a minority.
Islamic schools have their benefits. However, there are many things that we as a community need to be more conscious of and make an effort to discuss. If we don’t talk about taboo topics in schools or discuss real problems, we are putting our Muslim youth at risk and failing to progress as an Ummah.
Disclaimer: This article is solely the reflection of the writer based on her experiences during Islamic school and may not reflect every Islamic school or its curriculum.