“Do we have to go, Mama?” My 8-year-old daughters asked me after I told them that we were going to a protest on Sunday.
“If we do not stand up for ourselves, who will?” I answered.
It all started when a large, national corporation decided to pull its advertising from a reality television show about Muslims. The founder and sole employee of a fringe, online, Christian association had pressured the store to withdraw its advertising, because the show portrayed Muslims as normal, everyday people and not the terrorists that he and his like-minded supporters believe us to be. This company pandered to bigotry and, not surprisingly, created somewhat of an uproar, among Muslims and many non-Muslims alike, when its decision became public. Although I could not convince my husband to stand out in the cold protesting, I could make my children go. And they were not particularly pleased with that fact.
I was especially excited about protesting because the girls and I had just attended a homeschool class at our city’s version of Occupy Wall Street, an occupation movement which started in New York City and has spread to cities all over the world. It specifically states on its website that the movement was inspired by the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. It is a “people-powered movement” that is “fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.” I thought the protest was a good opportunity to exercise our constitutional rights that we had just learned about.
My especially inquisitive daughter continued, “Why does Lowe’s hate Muslims, Mama?”
That was a harder question to answer than “Why we were going?” and I was immediately reminded of a friend’s concern about bringing her 10-year-old son to the protest. She did not know how to discuss this kind of bigoted action with her son, without making him feel marginalised or completely on the defensive. I was now confronted with her dilemma. Nevertheless, I proceeded with a clumsy explanation that was likely far too nuanced for their young minds.
The day before the protest we made signs; an activity that I hoped would get them excited about participating. It worked – at least for a while. They designed their own signs, from the message to the rainbow-coloured, bubble letters. At one point, my inquisitive daughter exclaimed with delight and satisfaction, “Snowflakes!” I looked at her sign. She had drawn beautiful, light blue snowflakes in two opposing corners, which seemed slightly out place with the message, “Bad Lowe’s.” I was once again reminded of the delicate balance between teaching children about standing up against bigotry and preserving their innocence.
When we arrived at the protest site, after about an hour’s drive, my other daughter asked in a somewhat disappointed tone, “That’s us?” She was right in the sense that it wasn’t the crowd we had expected, but what she did not seem to notice was the composition of the protesters. They were young, old, Muslim and non-Muslim, and included several elected county officials from the county in which the store is located. For the most part, the people in the cars passing by either honked with support or did nothing. Police officers stopped their patrol cars and told us that they supported what we were doing – but to stay out of the street. One lady yelled “Liars!” to us out of her car window, but she was the exception that day. About an hour and a half later, we packed up our signs and headed home. All in all, I thought it was a great experience for my girls, even if it didn’t compare to ice skating with Baba on a Sunday.
Being Muslim in post-9/11 United States has its challenges. Recently, a friend was called a “terrorist” and “suicide bomber” walking out of a public library, targeted because of her hijab. Even among those not hostile to Islam, there is widespread ignorance about the religion and about those who practice it. And in this year’s presidential race, it has become politically advantageous for some politicians to stir up hate and lies against Muslims. Aware of all of this, I try to teach my girls little lessons now that will prepare them for the future. In addition to this protest, we boycott several products because of the CEOs’ support of policies against Palestinians. I want my girls to understand why mama gave up her favourite coffee.
I also pray just about everywhere – in car parks, parks, restaurants, cinemas, supermarkets, and on pavements. Sometimes my girls are embarrassed, telling me that “people are staring.” My response is always the same, “I have to answer to Allah I about my prayers; I can’t worry about what other people think.” Soon enough they will be joining me in these prayers, and one day when they are adults, they will more fully understand how difficult it can be to pray in public in a non-Muslim country. But they will remember that their mama prayed just about everywhere while they were growing up.
Protesting is one of the lessons about standing up for our religion and against injustice that I want my children to learn, because justice is a major theme in the Qur’an. For example,
Indeed, We have sent Our Messengers with clear proofs, and revealed with them the Scripture and the Balance that mankind may keep up justice. (Al-Hadid:25)
As Muslims, we are expected to set the example for the rest of humanity (see Al-Baqarah:143). We are expected to work for justice. And although my children have not experienced the brutality and injustice that many children around the world have experienced, they need to learn their responsibilities in this regard, taking into consideration their developmental level and innocence. Achieving this balance is not always easy, but it can be seen in a child’s beaming smile and a protest sign decorated with snowflakes.
J. Samia Mair is the author of two children’s books, Amira’s Totally Chocolate World, and The Perfect Gift, published by The Islamic Foundation. She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals, and elsewhere. Among other projects, she is working on a chapter book. She lives in the United States with her husband and two daughters, whom she home schools.