ANNAPOLIS – Every year Muslim student Yousef Hussein looks forward to the feasting, prayer and family time following the month-long holiday of Ramadan.
But this year, a standardized test threatened to overshadow the fun for the Forest Oak Middle School 13-year-old.
Yousef’s experience with the exam is typical of the treatment Muslim students receive, they and their parents say. Maryland school systems make little accommodation for their special dietary and scheduling difficulties, particularly during this month’s high holiday.
During Ramadan, a time of fasting and reflection based on the lunar calendar, Muslims can’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. They also have an obligation to pray five times a day, year-round.
In the past two months, Muslim parents in Howard and Montgomery Counties have complained to officials about the schools’ testing schedule, prayer accommodations and lack of vegetarian lunch options. Muslim students face similar problems statewide.
The most recent complaint has been about the scheduling of the Maryland State Functional Writing Test for Dec. 4 and 5, coinciding with the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan.
Most counties excuse student absences for the Muslim holiday, and students may take the standardized test the following week, said Maryland State Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Yousef said. “They’re putting it on my holiday and I’m not going to be able to concentrate. My performance will go down.”
Samira Hussein, Yousef’s mother and a Muslim activist from Gaithersburg, is one of the upset parents. Hussein, a mother of four, said she has unsuccessfully lobbied to get the state to change the testing dates since July. Hussein said she thinks it’s unfair for the test to be scheduled on a holiday because Muslim students will also miss a day of instruction while they complete the make-up exam.
“I just decided my son is not going to take the test this year and he’s going to miss the make-up,” Hussein said. “Our children are upset because they don’t want to go. They want to enjoy their holiday.”
Though the U.S. Census Bureau does not collect data on religion, Maryland is one of 10 states with a majority of the American Muslim population, according to Muslim community Web sites.
About 69 percent of Muslim children in the United States attend public school, according to a 1996 poll by the Washington-based Council on American- Islamic Relations.
Sharifa Alkhateeb, president of the Muslim Education Council in Great Falls, Va., has spent years trying to persuade Washington-area schools of the importance of accommodating Muslim students.
Most educators don’t understand a Muslim student’s daily schedule during the month of Ramadan, she said.
Muslim children begin fasting at puberty, which Middle Eastern children usually reach by age 8 or 9, Alkhateeb said. During Ramadan, students typically wake up before dawn to eat breakfast and pray. After a short break, they go to school, abstaining from food and water all day. They can break their fast at sundown, usually around 5 p.m, but at about 7:30 p.m., they must pray for about 2-and-a-half hours. This busy schedule leaves little time for homework and studying, Alkhateeb said.
“The number of Muslim students is strikingly increasing in the public school system. Many teachers don’t know what’s going on with the Muslim student,” Alkhateeb said. “They’ll (teachers) make major tests that happen right in the middle of holiday time. There should be some kind of accommodation made.”
Maryland Muslim activist Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad said he’s heard complaints from many Muslims, but they are reluctant to speak out.
“I really wish they would stand up for their rights more,” Ahmad said.
Fhafqat Abbasi of Clarksville said in most cases the school system has accommodated his three children’s needs. For example, they always have somewhere to pray during the school day.
However, the schools do not offer enough foods his children can eat, Abbasi said.
Muslims don’t eat anything made of pork products, including gelatin, bread with shortening and some chocolate products.
With more understanding and awareness, Hussein said she feels Muslim cultural differences can be accommodated in the future, especially during holidays.
“I don’t want people to get the feeling we’re just promoting our religion,” Hussein said. “I’m not forcing my beliefs on others. I just want people to understand. Sometimes you have to learn not to settle for less.”