“I want to be a Muslim,” says your 5 year-old daughter, adjusting the scarf that her auntie gave her, making her look like a traditional Muslim.
“Okay, Your father is Muslim, you can be Muslim too.”
“Yay!” she says excitedly. “Can I wear this scarf to school tomorrow?”
“Uhhhhh. Let me think about it,” you say, hoping that she might forget.
The truth is, wearing a scarf and being a Muslim at home is different from wearing it to school; and really, is she even a real Muslim? Granted, you and your husband said that she could pick her own religion when she grew up, but she hasn’t grown up yet. Can you choose a religion at age 5?
A few months ago, you attended a celebration to mark the end of Ramadan called the EID. You were invited by one of your best friends and it was a barbeque to end all barbeques. There was plenty of food, kids, and family. Had you attended such a gathering growing up, you might have become a Muslim too. But instead, you’re a pseudo Christian.
Since then, she’s been asking questions like why people fast and don’t eat pork like her grandmother who never met a pig she didn’t like. “Oh, it’s against their religion? Can it be against mine?” Now the prayers she sees her father doing hold new meaning. “Can I say them with you?” she’ll ask, kneeling at the mat beside him.
Once she realized that the sea of colorful headscarves worn by the Egyptian and African women in your Jersey City neighborhood belonged to Muslim women, it’s been a wrap. Now, she has something of her own that connects her to this religion: a scarf given to her by her aunt.
Now she’s had it a few years, and it’s not a Muslim scarf per se. It’s not even fresh anymore from using it as a belt, rope to pull her back and a zillion other things. Sometimes it’s exhausting to watch her fiddle, tuck, clip and do everything in her power to make it work. “Does this look Muslim mommy?” It’s like trying to make a plantain a banana, it’s close, but it ain’t the same thing. The other day you let her wear it to the park so you should have seen this coming. But you didn’t.
You call your mom.
“She doesn’t want to be black!” she screams into the phone. “Remember how she was so into Mexicans and then it was the Chinese? Now she wants to be a Muslim.”
“So you think I shouldn’t let her wear it?”
“Why does she want to wear one in the first place? Her head’s not cold!”
“She says she likes being different?”
“She needs to be herself! You can’t just let kids do what they want to do.”
She has a point. Are you unfairly setting your child up for disaster? Sometimes her innocence around this religion is heartbreaking because you wonder when the bubble will burst and she will know what you know. That Muslims are severely misunderstood in this country, and that’s being nice. Some people hate them. All it takes is one fool to say the wrong thing and then what?
At the risk of sounding like a paranoid white American that is afraid her daughter is bringing home a black dude, you call Sadiyyah, the sister of your best friend who invited you to the EID, to get some advice. She tells you that growing up in her black Muslim household, she didn’t have to wear a scarf, but a lot of times she chose to. “I liked that it represented my religion. Once a little girl at camp said, ‘You look like a Muslim,’ and I said, “I am!”
But she also understands, and even shares your concern about letting your daughter wear a Muslim scarf to school. Ironically, she has a five-year-old daughter who wants to wear a scarf to school too and she wonders if she’s prepared for the questions that she might get. “I think about how the radicals give the religion such a bad name and it’s a shame that we have to pull back in the world to protect our children. But at the same time, I have to know that it’s other people’s hang up. At the end of the day, she’s only five, so she may not get a lot of questions.”
You get off the phone relieved that you’re not so crazy. Even this woman who is a practicing Muslim, has your same fears.
But you still have to answer the questions: Do you let your daughter wear the scarf to school or not?
Your mind thinks to this Muslim woman that you see everyday when dropping your daughter off to school. She wears all black and is covered everywhere except for the eyes. Every time you see her you jump out of your skin. It’s like seeing a ninja first thing in the morning and you’re never prepared for it. It occurs to you that as open as you think you are about Muslims and the religion, you’re not really. At the end of the day, there’s this part of you that wants things to be easy. Maybe as a black woman in America the thought of taking on another controversial thing just seems like self-torture. But maybe you’re projecting that on to your kid. Perhaps it’s your hang up. Maybe by the time she gets a little older it will be more accepted. Maybe it is now. Maybe it doesn’t even matter because Sadiyyah grew up proud and the world wasn’t any different back then.
You have to let your daughter find her way. This little girl might just be a Muslim and if so, she’ll figure out how to be that. You won’t throw her to the wolves, but you trust that she will figure it out. You’re going to let her wear the scarf to school.
By Erickka Sy Savané