Naira Rehman

Senior Reading

To preface this narrative, I would like to mention that this is just a small collection of my experiences as a Muslim growing up in Alabama. I feel it is also important to include the disclaimer that I was a pretty sheltered child since I have only attended private schools, so even though I have lived in Alabama for over thirteen years, the South’s infamous discrimination did not quite permeate my bubble of youthful ignorance.

Looking through the open doorway of Mrs. House’s vibrant pre-k classroom, I saw a little girl sitting on the floor with her peers and knew, without a doubt, that she would be my friend. Reflecting on that moment, I now think that I was drawn to her because she looked similar to the kids that I was used to seeing and spending time with: those that were brown. Back then, however, I did not even consider this as the reason because I did not register the differences in people’s skin tones as a child, and I just believed that we were meant to be friends.

As we grew up together at Donoho, we became accustomed to being called by the other’s name and being asked if we were sisters after people confused our identities. I always wondered why people could not tell us apart as we looked completely different, with distinct skin tones, facial structures, and hair colors. Furthermore, our personalities and the ways we carried ourselves were contrasting. I was dumbfounded, but it was a mystery that I accepted as a part of life because it happened so often due to some Americans’ tendency to stereotype other ethnicities.

When I was around ten years old, I convinced my parents to let me create my own Instagram account. This prospect was very exciting for me, and I used this account to share a plethora of arbitrary photos that I had taken of myself, my friends, and things I was proud of. My initial username was, unfortunately, some combination of the words “dolphin” and “lover”. All my friends followed my account, and I enjoyed sharing my pictures with them. However, as I became more comfortable with the app and began to spend more time with my friends from the Mosque, I decided the handle should contain the word “Muslim” instead of “dolphin”. I was pretty content with this decision, but I found that my followers had dropped in number, and I could not put two and two together. When I figured out that a few of these followers, who were friends from school, had taken measures to block me on social media, I confronted one of them about it. I asked them why they blocked me because I thought we had been friends. She told me that her parents made her due to my username. Now, I was not the cleverest child, so I did not understand what that meant until I asked my parents. I ended up reverting my username to something “uncontroversial” in an attempt to fit in.

For separate reasons, it was also in the fourth grade that I began to beg my parents to let me go to the relatively new Islamic school that almost all my Muslim friends attended. Even though I felt like I fit in pretty well at Donoho, I thought that I would do better at the other school. Eventually, my parents gave in, and I was set to start attending the religious academy in fifth grade.

While I was there, I had quite a different experience from what I had hoped. Even though they were all Muslim like me, I found that I was not able to fit in and create friendships. I constantly felt left out and neglected by not only my classmates but also my teacher, with whom I could not talk freely as I did with my teachers at Donoho. They were not inclusive, and I felt judged for any lighthearted statements or genuine concerns about the academic material that I brought up during class. I talked to my parents about transferring back to Donoho because I knew it would improve my situation. When I finally returned to Donoho in sixth grade, everyone told me that I was so much quieter and nothing like my previously talkative self, which is partially why I accepted prejudice without speaking up about it.

Further into sixth-grade year, it was during world history class when our teacher introduced the topic of the contributions of Islamic scholars during the European Dark Ages. She asked the class, “What is Islam?” and my interest was peaked because I was excited to hear about my religion from the perspective of my teacher and see my classmates learn about it. Immediately after the question was asked, one of my classmates responded with “terrorist.” I do not remember anything else that happened during that class period except being overcome by utter shock and confusion. What was a terrorist? Why does my classmate think Muslims are terrorists? Does my classmate think that I am a terrorist? Do they even know that I am a Muslim? My parents answered the first two questions for me. They explained that a terrorist was someone who used violence and intimidation to incite chaotic and deathly fear. They told me it was not our fault that many people in America associate Muslims with terrorists because of groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which claim to consist of Muslims acting out of religious zeal. They asserted that the groups completely disobeyed the teachings of Islam and its prophets, but the effect of casting Muslims in a negative light that they caused was irreparable as long as everyone believed the terrorists’ motivation to be what they declared it as, which they did, for the most part. It was here that I learned that my classmates did not have anything against me specifically for my religion or color; it was their conservative upbringing that was to blame for their beliefs. Their social surroundings and parents’ ideologies caused them to think and act in a way that made minorities feel just that, minor. This was why my classmates had to block me on social media: They were influenced to feel like I was wrong for being Muslim.

The next year in seventh grade, our geography teacher, the basketball coach, made us do a project for which we would create our own country, its constitution, and its flag. I thought it was a unique and exciting concept, but as people presented their guiding documents, I was surprised once again by the prejudice some of my classmates actually had towards people different from them. A particular student only permitted white, Christian people to live in their country, and the flag they created for this nation was white, which they declared illustrated the “purity” of the people who lived there. However, I must admit that I believe they forgot to create a flag for the country so they improvised while presenting. At that moment, I felt offended because the fact that I was neither white nor Christian seemed to be thrown in my face, as I would not have been able to enter my classmate’s country. Specifically, I was shocked that many of my peers were particularly patriotic and proud of America, the land of the free, but when they were given the opportunity to forge their own constitutions, they sought to restrict the kinds of people that would be allowed to inhabit their nation. At this point in my life, I had gotten used to these recurring experiences of discrimination, but I found that as I grew up and went to high school, these events diminished in number. I attribute this to the fact that as we grow older we become more educated and, as a result, more open-minded.

Overall, private schools do an adequate job of preventing their students from being discriminated against, but even the best private schools cannot keep all the unjust prejudice out. I am grateful that my unpleasant experiences of being a Muslim in the Deep South, so far, were minor compared to other Muslims’, but also, bigotry should not have to be accepted as a part of life for minorities. Obviously, we do not live in an ideal world, so we cannot fully eradicate such inequity, but I believe that the process of doing so is slowly in the works, with younger generations being more open-minded and considerate.