Children, Isiamic Literature and Self-Identity

By Gilani-Williams, Fawzia | Islamic Horizons, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Children, Isiamic Literature and Self-Identity


Gilani-Williams, Fawzia, Islamic Horizons


HATE MY NAME! SAID MY Seminole African-American sixth grader. He didn't look up. When I said, "Jihad, I love your name. It has a beautiful meaning. Why don't you like it?" His reply was, "Everyone tells me to go back where I came from!" He was referring to the Euro-American people of other faiths as "everyone."

Image and text reinforcement send strong subliminal messages to children and sometimes have an over-reaching, insidious effect. Hating is an unhealthy sentiment especially when it is directed at oneself. Children must see their own sociocultural group represented positively, according to Michael Tunnell, children's literature specialist at Brigham Young University.

Doring Kindersley, a British multinational publisher of illustrated reference books for adults and children, in its book for young children, "Holiday! Celebration Days Around the World," listed a multitude of holidays ranging from long-established ones like Hanukkah, Christmas, and Diwali to newer ones like April Fool's Day, Father's Day and Kwanzaa. Missing, however, was the second largest celebration in the world - Eid.

What is the book's message to young Muslim children? Stella Miles Franklin (1879-1954), an Australian writer and feminist best known for her 1901 novel, "My Brilliant Career," noted, "without an indigenous literature people can remain alien in their own soil."

Many Muslims in America are no longer immigrants. They are indigenous Americans.

INVISIBILITY IN MUSLIM CHILDREN'S CREATIVE WRITING

Some years ago I was working in a Canadian Islamic school looking over 80 mixed-age samples of stories to identify writing levels. After reading the first few stories, I stopped scrutinizing the punctuation, sentence structure and spelling. Something else had caught my attention. I speedily scanned the rest of the stories. I was looking for words that reflected the child's everyday cultural and religious identity. Certainly, their stories reflected a culture and an identity, but to me, both of these resonated of an exclusive monoculture reminiscent of England in the 1970s. Islamic Critical Theory suggests this phenomenon is due, in part, to cultural and religious self-suppression. W.E.B. Du Bois, a noted African-American educator, referred to it as double consciousness, a "sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others."

However, the issue of Muslim children's inability to acknowledge their cultural or Islamic identity is not limited to North America. In a conservative, Muslim Middle Eastern country, elementary school girls were asked to draw pictures of their families and themselves. They drew themselves with yellow, orange or brown hair wearing North American-styled clothes. Yet, every girl in the class had black hair. After complementing their beautiful drawings, I drew their attention to the hair color and clothes and asked them who had they drawn. In unison, they burst out, "American girls!"

Another educator in a similar school said, "In my class of nearly 30 teenage girls, I asked my students to create a personal profile. The assignment specifically asked them to describe themselves physically. In reviewing them, I noticed none, not one student, had mentioned their hijab or gave any indication that they were Muslim. I find that, often, children will shy away from the Islamic identity not knowing whether it is socially acceptable. I think, better, more positive Islamic representation in their world, books, literature, music would help Muslim children feel safe to embrace it and be proud of it."

Muslim children's reluctance or failure to express their identity can be counteracted through Islamic children's literature. The Association of Canadian Publishers provide a helpful comparison stressing "the importance of providing [elementary-aged Canadian] children access to Canadian books that tell Canadian stories with Canadian settings, and celebrate Canadian values." A similar case with books, stories, settings and values can be made for Muslim children or, in fact, any minority or majority group. …

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