In push for Muslim school holiday, some Montgomery students will stay home


Hannah Shraim, 14, her father Ihab Shraim and mother May Salloum-Shraim in the family kitchen.The Shraim has two high schoolers who will not be in school for the Muslim holiday Eid. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

On other holidays, the choice has been difficult: Education or faith? But this year, with the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha on Tuesday, the Shraim family decided against school. Their teenagers might fall behind in their classes. They might feel torn. But they will stay home to celebrate.

The Germantown family is joining others across Montgomery County in an effort to make the Islamic holy day into a full-fledged school holiday. They point out that school is closed for Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. It also is closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

They ask why a holiday wouldn’t similarly be given for Eid al-Adha, one of two major Muslim holidays, in a county with a growing Islamic community. There are no county or census figures on the Muslim population, but community leaders say that Muslims number at least in the “tens of thousands.” Montgomery’s population is nearly 1 million.

“It’s like we don’t feel equal to other people who get their holidays off,” says Hannah Shraim, 14, a sophomore at Northwest High School in Germantown.

School officials say they give excused absences to students who miss classes on religious holidays and that they can’t legally close schools for religious reasons. But the issue is gaining attention as Muslim leaders step up a call for equity and encourage Muslims and non-Muslims to keep children home Tuesday.

In recent weeks, Muslim leaders have started a petition drive, called a news conference and won the backing of a string of elected leaders and religious groups including a Lutheran church and a Jewish organization.

“We think this is very much a civil rights issue, and we’ve had a strong response from people of all faiths,” said Saqib Ali, a former state legislator and co-chair of the recently formed group Equality for Eid Coalition.

Among elected officials supporting the group’s effort is County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who is Jewish and said he intends to keep his son home that day. “I think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Montgomery school officials say that, legally, granting a day off requires a secular rationale, such as an impact on instruction because of a high rate of absenteeism. Last year, the school board asked staff to examine attendance patterns on the Muslim holiday.

Figures from the past three years show Muslim holidays had little impact on attendance, school officials said. Last year, Eid al-Adha fell on a Friday, and 5.56 percent of students were absent, similar to other Fridays. About 6.5 percent of staff was absent, which was fairly typical, they said.

Maryland law designates public school holidays from the Friday before Easter through the Monday afterward and also gives time off for a period surrounding Christmas.

In the 1970s, Montgomery began giving students days off for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah when the holidays fell on school days. “Our understanding is that decision was made for operational reasons,” Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig said.

Forty years later, Muslim leaders say their concern about Islamic holidays goes back a number of years and has increased as the Muslim community has grown and more people have been affected.

In Germantown, May Salloum-Shraim said her teenagers, in 10th and 12 grades, are dedicated students who do not like to miss instruction. “It’s extremely difficult on these kids, and it’s absolutely unfair that they are forced to choose,” she said.

Eid al-Adha typically begins with a morning prayer service, she said. Afterward, she said: “Think of it as Christmas. Everything is all about families and happiness and food.”

But some years, she said, her teenagers have rushed from prayer service back to classes.

Her daughter, Hannah, says she worries about missing math and her AP government class. This year, she is on the high school tennis team and will miss a match scheduled on the Muslim holiday.

She also will return to school the next morning to face the PSAT exam, a national standardized test given in advance of the SAT college entrance exam.

“This is an important exam,” says her mother. Muslim students will be celebrating their holiday and “thinking in the back of their head, ‘I need to get my sleep.’ ”

Muslim leaders take issue with the county’s focus on absenteeism as the standard for an official day off. They say they have never been told how much absenteeism would be enough to qualify, and that Christian and Jewish holidays have not been put to the same test.

“We think it’s not right when there are different standards for different people,” Ali said.

Fairness questions resonate with many non-Muslims.

Kari Parsons, pastor of Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Montgomery Village, said her church’s governing council was asked to take a position — and a majority voted to support the Muslim holiday effort. There are school holidays for other religions, and the Muslim community is large, she said. “It seemed fair,” she said.

Like Montgomery, other school systems in the Washington region — Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince George’s, Prince William and Arlington counties and the D.C. Public Schools — do not give students Muslim holidays off. But officials say students who miss school to observe religious holidays are excused.

Organizers point out that some school systems — in New Jersey, Vermont and Michigan, for example — give students at least one Muslim holiday off.

In Damascus, Hwaida Hassanein, 41, a mother of four, said she faced the same issue when she grew up in Montgomery and now confronts it again with her children. She intends to keep her two youngest, who attend Montgomery schools, home for Eid al-Adha. “They don’t get any other chance for this,” she said. “To me, it’s the religion and the tradition. This is what my grandmother did.”

As she talked, her mother, Mimi Hassanein, a longtime activist, said she hoped for change in time for the next generation. “I don’t want my grandchildren to have this issue when they have their children,” she said.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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