Ramadan Ready

By: Irfan Toor  •  March 31, 2022  •  (8 min read)

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Asma Ahmed, an Assistant Professor at Niagara University Faulty of Education, about how schools, and especially school leaders, could support Muslim students, especially as Ramadan is about to begin. Most school boards have policies for religious accommodation but, as we often see, there needs to be enough knowledge for staff to shift those policies into practices that support students without reinforcing marginalization. Asma shared some of her thoughts on what the experiences is like for Muslim students and the role that school leaders play.

Q. What are some of the ways in which Muslim students have been well supported at school?

Asma: There are a few ways Canadian Muslim students can feel supported in their respective schools. First, Muslim students need to be viewed by administrators and their teachers as equals to their peers in their respective schools. They need to be seen through an asset lens rather than a deficit, or “different”, lens - Muslim students are seen as enhancing the school with their presence. How we view our students is the foundation for building an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and anti-oppressive school culture. How do we view their culture? How do we view their upbringing? How do we view their lifeworld? 

Second, Muslim students have a deep sense of belonging in their schools. They have strong relationships with their teachers and school leaders. They feel they can speak their mind respectfully without repercussions and ask for what they want and need. Their voice is taken into consideration, proactively, when planning for school activities and events. When there are supports provided, they are not viewed or labeled as “accommodations,” but rather are anticipated as foundational human rights. Language matters in how we view our students and provide support.  

Third, when it is demonstrated to Muslim students that the advances they made the previous year through meetings, negotiations and conversations become standard practice at the school, and thus will be continued and extended the following year, such as having prayer spaces, iftars (a gathering for breaking one’s fast) on school campuses, approved looser outfits for hijab-wearing students, and so on. These practices should be publicised and easily accessible for the community – like in the schools student planner and on the website.

Finally, when Muslim students feel they are welcomed to contribute to the school community in all spheres: socially, politically, academically, spiritually and physically. Muslim students are not brought to the table just for their voices on “religious inclusivity” but their perspectives as individual human beings are valued and taken into consideration.  

Q. What are the biggest challenges for Muslim students or families as they enter and progress through the school system?

Asma: Muslim families’ biggest challenge is wondering if they are fully accepted in their school community for their worldview and lifeworlds. Will their children be stripped of their identity or will they find culturally sustaining pedagogies that will affirm and sustain their Muslim identities?  

Two weeks ago I had a high school student share that a movie was shown in class that stereotypically aligned Muslims with terrorism. She said this was a planned movie that students watch every year in that class. She was asking if she should ignore it or should she speak to the teacher — and this was in a school with a “significant” Muslim population. I know that many schools did commit to addressing systemic Islamophobia after the attack on Our London Family, however some schools (and educators) are still perpetuating Islamophobic narratives when delivering curriculum in subtle (and not so subtle) communications with students in their classrooms.

Q. What are the biggest challenges for educators and school leaders when it comes to ensuring success for Muslim students?

Asma: I think school leaders can discuss the milieu of Islamophobia and how Muslims are framed in the media as terrorists, as sub-human, uncivilized, misogynistic, patriarchal and in need of liberation. Discussion around colonization and how the meddling of Western nations in Muslim-majority countries have led to the instability and dissolution of fundamental rights is important. This historical contextualization helps reframe our view of Muslim students and their families. We are constantly bombarded with images equating Muslims with all the aforementioned pejorative adjectives, and therefore as leaders and educators we ought to start with ourselves first, to constantly challenge our own biases and our own conditioning.  

School leaders' biggest challenge might be getting their school community on board with this journey of challenging biases and affirming identities. When educators and school staff are not on the same page on the importance of supporting diversity, equity and inclusion, it may hinder the possibility of systemic implementation. Research shows that the pareto rule of 80/20 looks promising to changing work cultures. 

Qaiser Ahmad, TDSB Secondary school administrator and course designer and facilitator of the OPC Self-Directed Learning course “Understanding Muslim Students in Our Schools”, also shared his perspective on how structures need to be re-examined to facilitate inclusion. “Every year, Muslim students and staff seem to ask the same question related to prayer in school, especially when the prayer falls during the school day between the months of November to before March break. What if schools modified bell times to accommodate potential prayer times? By doing so, this would provide the opportunity for  students and staff to perform their prayers during the lunch period or an afternoon break, rather than having to leave class and miss instructional time.” A potentially simple solution to what Qaiser referred to as the ongoing question that has been asked at the beginning of the school year for decades: what time can I pray?

 Q. As we get close to the month of Ramadan, what should school leaders remember and remind their staff and students about?

Asma: Ramadan is the 9th month on the lunar Islamic Calendar. It is a month of fasting from food and water (dawn to dusk) for 29 or 30 days. For some Muslims it is more than fasting from food and water, it is more of a personal bootcamp — a time of goal-setting, renewal (physically and spiritually), solitude, sleep deprivation (due to waking up pre-dawn, and sleeping late because of night prayers), and reading the entire Qur’an during the month.

There will be Muslims who will not be fasting for many reasons, and some Muslims as young as six or seven may attempt (by their own choice) to fast half days or full days. Some may have to break their fast in the middle of the day for health or other reasons. You may notice your school prayer room in Ramadan is full at the beginning of Ramadan, so you may have to use a larger space to support the increasing number of students, and it may wane off through the month and then pick up again the last days of Ramadan. Or perhaps you will see a lot of students renewing their commitment to Friday prayers and you might see some of your students wearing Hijab during this month. Ramadan will look and feel different for different students, it may even be different for the same students from day one to day 20 and day 30.  

And that is the messiness and beauty of EDI work. Being attentive to our students and continuing to build those relationships will help leaders know how to support and when to support. 

I sent a survey to ask Muslim educators how their schools can be Ramadan Ready and there were two main themes.

Ramadan Awareness for all Students 

  • Acknowledge and celebrate the importance of Ramadan for Muslims with other staff members and students. 
  • Invite Muslim students to present information about Ramadan in the morning announcements.

Supporting Students who are Fasting

  • Ask staff to support students' needs during the month. 
  • Be flexible with regards to school routines: if a child is fasting and feeling tired, to provide some time to rest instead of engaging in extraneous activity. 
  • Help students who are fasting to find a place to pray, read Quran or just read/do activities away from the lunch area if they wish. 

For additional information view these Ramadan Ready Resources.
Visit our OPC Course on Understanding Muslim Students in Our Schools developed and facilitated by Qaiser Ahmad.

Asma Ahmed is an Assistant Professor at Niagara University, Faculty of Education. She has a PhD in Critical Policy, Equity and Leadership Studies (CELPS) from Western University. Her research revolves around supporting and creating a more equitable education system, focussing on examining the barriers and supports related to marginalized and racialized students using culturally sustaining pedagogies. Asma was a senior instructional designer in the development of a theocentric pedagogy (iRISE) for nine K-12 Islamic schools across Canada. She is also conducting courses with the Centre of Islamic Thought and Education (CITE) at the University of South Australia. Asma is the Editor-in-Chief of the first Magazine, in Canada, Supporting Muslim Students.

Qaiser Ahmad is a secondary school administrator with the Toronto District School Board. He has an M.Ed. in Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning (CTL) from the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Qaiser has been conducting workshops related to Muslims and Islam in schools for over two decades. He developed the OPC Course Understanding Muslim Students in Our Schools, which provides school leaders with the opportunity to further their understanding of equity, diversity, and inclusion with respect to Muslims in Canada. Qaiser is also the co-chair of the Toronto DSB’s Islamic Heritage Month committee, which has produced resources that have been used by school boards across Canada.