I believe that the most powerful words that a person can share are words from their lived experience, words that are close to their heart; in the hope that it resonates with others. I want to share a story about tolerance and overcoming the prejudices that we carry around with us everyday that affect the way we treat others.
I was born into a family that I like to consider as a collage, a piece of art that is made up of various materials that come together to form something beautiful. My grandparents were Catholic on my mother’s side and on my father’s side Anglican. My parents both reverted to Islam in the 1970s against the will of their parents. My mother’s family was particularly harsh and she literally had to hide all evidence of her being a Muslim as they found it hard to accept. She often told me about having to leave the house with her khimar (head scarf) in her bag and wait until she got a good distance away from the house to be able to put it on. And there are many Muslim women still facing the same struggles today. In those days however, life was much more difficult for new Muslims; with family, in the workplace and generally in the society. We have come a long way but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago as a young child in the 1980s I was oblivious to what was going on around me in the society. My parents and my grandparents (who I must say eventually accepted my mother’s decision), did all that they could to shelter me and protect me. My first encounter with the “real world” was when I was transitioning from primary to secondary school. In 1993, I passed my common entrance (now S.E.A.) exam for Bishop Anstey High School. I had never heard of the school before, all I knew was that my grandparents thought that it was a really good school for me to go to, also it was close to my grandmother’s house. I was secretly wishing to go to SAGHS or St. Joseph’s Convent only because all of my friends were constantly talking about going to those schools.
On registration day I entered the school’s compound with my parents, for what must have been a proud day for them. I was happy that they were happy. But that happiness soon grew into outrage and sadness when the school’s principal advised my parents that I should try to get a transfer to Woodbrook Secondary School because that was a good school too. And it was and still is… but that was not the school I passed for. Needless to say my parents paid no mind to the Principal because they knew that I had legitimately passed for the school and had every right to be there just as any other student. They wrote letters to the Board of the school, the Ministry of Education and anyone else who they believed may have had the power to help. Eventually I was allowed to enter the school and my first year went quite well. I made friends, I loved my school and my teachers and I was performing well, all was resolved… or so I thought.
Shortly after entering Form 2 (September 1994), the principal called me into her office and informed me that I would no longer be able to attend the school if I didn’t shorten my skirt and wrap my khimar (hijab/headwear) as a turban instead of letting it fall in front. I am not sure what the reason that she gave me was but I am sure to the school officials thought that we (there were two of us) just stuck out like sore thumbs and they did not know how to deal with this threat to the school’s uniformity. It is possible that they feared a day when the entire school population would be customizing the uniform, transforming the once sacred halls into a sort of circus… Maybe… I was traumatized. My father made a huge deal about it and called the press, of course at that age I did not understand really what was going on and just wanted to crawl under a rock until the end of the world.
For the months of September and early October 1994 the newspapers and airwaves were ablaze with the topic and everyone was weighing in.
“We should all help ASJA and the Muslimeen to build their own schools, while we work to abolish Williams’ mischief, his “Civil Rights Act” of 1966 which some think gives them a right to impose their morality on the rest of us.” Morgan Job [Express, Tuesday 13th September, 1994 p.8]
“As Bishop Anstey is perhaps trying to do, the schools should be big enough, and have the good humour, to regulate a hijab version of their uniforms. Far from undermining their commitment to “unity” and “equality”, to stipulate a proper hijab version of the uniform would be to underscore the existence of those values in a modern context of diversity. Moreover, the most eloquent message of such a policy wold be that it confidently provides far more than, were it in their place, the Islamic militants would ever concede.” Lennox Grant [Sunday Express, September 11th, 1994 p.8]
“One must consider what would be the unintended consequences of such an accommodation, not only for schools, but for all other organizations which not only require uniform patterns of organizational behaviour. Clearly we need to find a formula that would allow certain minimum standards to be maintained, but which would be flexible enough to permit modifications to be made whenever there are good reasons for so doing. The formula may not be easy to come by, but the effect (sic) to find one is worth making, and is certainly not beyond our imagination.” Selwyn Ryan [Sunday Express, September 11th, 1994 p.23]
“It is unfortunate that despite years of discussion and negotiation initiated by the Islamic Organizations through all diplomatic channels, blind prejudice has prevailed and this matter will now have to be settled in a court of law. The UWI Islamic Society stands firmly in support of our young Muslim sisters who are truly victims of conscience and any cause which seeks to protect and preserve the rights of Muslim students.” Haroon Ali Soobrattee, President, UWI Islamic Society [Express, Wednesday 7th September, 1994 p.9]
“It is passing strange that none of the feminist groups in Trinidad and Tobago have had the courage, in the face of the infamous fatwah, to protest the wearing of the now controversial hijab in contravention of the accepted uniform in denominational schools. As a Muslim woman born, bred and educated at one of the convents in Trinidad, I had the opportunity to compare the lifestyles of my peers, and therefore find it difficult to comprehend, far less accept a most subjugative (sic) form of attire found anywhere in the civilized world.” Latifah Mohammed-Khan [Express, Thursday 15th September, 1994 p.9]
You see up until that point in my life hijab was all I knew. It was a part of who I was, it was a big part of my identity. That is why as I walked out of her office shaking and with my heart racing I was baffled at the thought that another person would want to strip me of an essential part of myself, I am not exaggerating when I say that it was akin to telling me that my arm had to be cut off in order to attend the school. At around the same time another Muslim girl at a convent and a Rastafarian girl at another school were facing the same issue.
There seemed to be a collective push to maintain the old order, an order that was facing the inevitable reality of a change that was set in motion during the 1970’s when our parents embraced Islam. We were the first generation of Muslims born into Islam and we ready to embark on a journey that our parents never took. My grandmother remarked at that time, that if Eric Williams was alive this “woulda neva happen”. Who knows? What I do know is that after the dust had settled our society had learnt to become more tolerant or at least more accommodating… And the old order was ruffled. I have not been keeping track of the actual numbers, but since then many Muslim girls have attended the school wearing hijab and still do.
Over 20 years have passed since those strange times and two months ago I learnt that my own daughter had passed for Bishop Anstey High School. Seeing my daughter now grown and ready to enter secondary school is a wonderful moment for me. Knowing that what I went through all those years ago and survived has made her path much easier makes me feel very happy. She knows the story and she understands that what she enjoys now is as the result of the struggles of her grandparents, parents and many others who came before her.
Tolerance and the embracing of diversity are much talked about concepts, but some of the most difficult to grasp and practice. Even with what I went through and coming from the diverse family that I come from I find myself quietly stereotyping and sometimes even dismissing others who I feel are not like me. It is much easier to remain in our comfort zones and surround ourselves with people similar to us. Where it gets sticky however, is when we actually reject, disrespect, or give less opportunities and even less caring to persons who we perceive are not like us. When we are children these boundaries don’t exist. Just observe any school or playground to see how children act and behave around each other, especially very young children. These attitudes are a result of our upbringing and negative values that are instilled in us from the outside world. To change this behaviour calls for true self-reflection and often, overcoming a fear of the unknown. It calls for a conscious decision to be open and empathetic in our interactions with others on a daily basis.
If you want to know something about a Muslim, don’t just go on the internet and believe everything you read. Ask a Muslim. Ask a Shouter Baptist, Ask a Catholic, Ask an Atheist, Ask a person is physical disabilities. Everyone has a story to tell, we just need to listen. The less we assume and the more we find out for ourselves, the more tolerant we become as individuals and as a group. In a society such as ours tolerance needs to be our second nature. We need to appreciate that we are all equal agents in this experiment called nation.
As I have seen with my own life experiences, it is important to take a stand against, discrimination, abuse and intolerance wherever we meet it. We cannot afford to remain silent. I wonder today if my parents had remained silent back then, what kind of life I would have had and what kind of struggles my daughter would have still had to face in 2016. Certainly if they hadn’t made the effort I may not have had the pleasure of seeing my own daughter walk through those gates in September.
Nimah Muwakil… Hilarian
[Adapted from a facebook post I did earlier this year and a speech given in July at the Children’s Authority]