After the Nov. 13 Paris attacks that killed 130 and left hundreds more wounded, the U.S. has seen an ugly flare-up in Islamophobia, with politicians calling for a ban on Syrian refugees and mosques falling victim to vandalism. If listening to C-SPAN and reading the newspaper over the past week has been making me, a non-Muslim woman, sick, I wondered how Muslim mothers across the country were feeling. Though I am not a mother yet, I am a former AmeriCorps teacher and a newlywed. I've spent a lot of time pragmatically thinking about children — their strengths and vulnerabilities and my responsibility to them as a teacher, a socially-engaged citizen, and, eventually, as a mother. Even in the most privileged circumstances, motherhood involves so much hope, fear, and anticipation. It requires constant negotiation between personal desires for one's child, societal expectations, and the child's inherent personality. Racial, ethnic, and religious intolerance complicates an already complicated task.
With politicians and Internet trolls spewing Islamophobic comments, what is on the minds of Muslim mothers right now? How are they explaining ISIS terror to their children and teaching them how to protect themselves from violence and ignorance? How are they helping their children make sense of the world? And what do they want non-Muslim mothers to know about what it's like to be a Muslim mother right now? These are the kinds of questions I posed to administrators at mosques and Muslim schools across the United States. These staff members then kindly referred me to dozens of Muslim mothers from their communities who were willing to speak to me for this story.
The following quotes are condensed versions of phone and email exchanges I had with 11 Muslim moms. All of the women's names have been changed or shortened to protect their identities and the identities of their children.
Naghma is the mother of two children, ages 10 and 6, and lives in California.
"My approach to explaining Islamophobia and ISIS to my children is to tell them the truth. They know their faith well enough to know that Islam doesn’t promote violence. But the confusion lies in the use of the word “Islam.” If ISIS terrorists are Muslims, then how come they’re bad? My children and I always revisit our basic beliefs when tough situations arise. I ask them: Are you Muslim? Are you bad? Do you hurt people? And they begin to answer their own questions with complete rationality.
I’d like non-Muslim mothers who are living in the U.S. to know that Muslim mothers are in the same boat as they are. We deal with the same adolescent issues you do. We work, clean the house, take the kids to soccer practice, come home to make dinner, and put our kids to sleep just like you do."
Zanib is the mother of three children, ages 10, 7, and 2, and lives in Colorado.
"We told the kids that there's always going to be hate in the world. How you carry yourselves, how you talk, is going to reflect your values. What we teach them at home is that they should respect everyone who crosses their path, no matter their race, religion, or ethnicity. We told them, as simply as possible, is that, unfortunately, every group of people has bad people in it. They are well aware that what ISIS practices is not Islam. Islam is a religion of peace and respectfulness. Barbaric acts are not the way to teach Islam or to get the point across.
Our biggest fear as U.S. Muslim moms is not ISIS. It's backlash. We're Americans — born and raised. We're simple people. We're raising our kids to be law-abiding citizens who make a difference in the world. We're good, whole-hearted people who are against what's going on. Non-Muslims should take a minute to get to know real Muslims — faithful Muslims, people who are following the religion the proper way — if they don't any Muslims already. ISIS is heinous and barbaric. What they do is by no means what our prophet asked of us. It also would be nice if when parents talk within their households, they be careful about what they say in front of their kids. That echoes outside your front door. Teach your kids to be respectful and accepting of everyone who crosses their path."
Taiyyaba is the mother of one child, age 2, and lives in North Carolina.
"I think about how black parents have to talk to their children about traffic stops and police. I will unfortunately have to have those types of talks with my son when he's older. If he's ever faced with direct Islamophobia, I want him to behave the way our religion teaches us to behave: with kindness, by responding to hate with love. Say, Okay, that's your way and this is my way. In the Koran, there's a verse that says, This is my life, that is your life, let's not fight about it. I want to teach him to be very proud of who he is.
My husband and I have always been very openly involved as Muslims. We serve on our mosque's board. We live very proudly and very openly. I think that's what gives you strength in times of Islamophobia. You're proud of who you are. You are defined by how you live your life, not the way ISIS tries to portray the way your faith is."
Kasar is the mother of two children, ages 8 and 4, and lives in Tennessee.
“I have not had Paris-specific conversations with my daughters. However, my 8-year-old has been asking a lot of questions and sharing her experiences from school. For example, she used to be very comfortable letting people know that she's Muslim, but now she's not.
The world is a beautiful place full of loving people. However, there are some people who make decisions that aren't very smart or nice. And it is our duty to help those who are oppressed become free.
Raise your child to be comfortable in his or her own skin. I tell my daughters that God made you special. The way God made you is God's gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God.
Motherhood is a challenge of its own these days. But belonging to a marginalized group makes motherhood even more difficult. Teaching your child to be patient and respond justly in the toughest moments can be difficult.”
Waheeda is the mother of three children, ages 8, 4, and 3, and lives in Massachusetts.
“My kids all attend an Islamic school. My 8-year-old son and I talk about a lot of things because, as a trauma therapist by profession, I really believe in talking to kids about trauma. When the Boston Marathon bombing happened, we talked about it, and I mentioned the Muslim angle. It's hard to talk about world issues because I want to shield him from how terrible the world is. I don't want that to be his framework. He's 8. He should be 8. He should play.
Some of us Muslims feel guilty even when we didn't do anything. We have this very apologist attitude. We'll try and stand back, go back into the woodwork. We have this feeling that we should make ourselves smaller so we don't impose and offend. When the Paris attacks happened, I was so angry. I wrote on Facebook that I was upset yesterday, am upset today, and will probably be that way tomorrow. I'm so angry because this is not fair. Social media is a gift and a curse. Well, after that Facebook rant, so many people wrote back. Non-Muslim friends left beautiful words of support, saying, 'We wish we could make it better. It's not fair. We're sorry.' They not only gave me hope, but gave hope to all of my Muslim friends following the chain.
We Muslim moms have all of the same challenges as non-Muslim moms. We have to deal with tantrums, childcare, stress, who's going to make dinner, who's going to do laundry; the house is a mess. But there's this added layer."
Shazia is the mother of three children, ages 7, 5, and 3, and lives in New Jersey.
“I think back to growing up in a somewhat religious family and hearing the 'Allahu Akbar' call to prayer. It's very soothing. I've always had a very positive perception of it. So growing up, I was never told that jihadists use the phrase. I've learned so much about the misinterpretations of Islam from Fox News. The Koran has so many verses, just like the Bible, and my family and community always focused on the positive ones. I try to install the positive ones in my son, too. But one day when I heard my son saying 'Allahu Akbar' in public —quietly, so quietly, over and over — I got very scared. My son can't do that. Kids sing Christmas carols, but my son can't do that. Mainstream Muslims will say it the same as 'OMG' or 'Thank God.' We use those 'Allah' phrases in the house, like Arabic for 'God bless you,' but I'm careful not to use them outside the house.
Something I've been asked is why don't Muslims speak up more to condemn terrorism? I was in college when 9/11 happened and I immediately looked up Muslims against terrorism groups that I could join. I spoke to everyone who would listen to me about what Islam really is. I worked at a blood donation bank. I did a lot for a few years. I did what I could to help, but after a while, it got kind of exhausting. And it hit me: It's not my job. When someone on Twitter called me out on not condemning the Paris attacks, I felt like saying, 'Dude, what do you do on Sunday night? Relax? Watch football? Shouldn't I get to do laundry and homework with my kids? Do I always have to be an ambassador?'
Sara is the mother of one child, age 5 months, and lives in North Carolina.
“I always thought that my main focus at this point in my life would be my work-life balance, not religious hatred. I want my daughter to grow up in a world where she's not hated. I'm going to have to be honest with my kid at a very young age.
I'm scared. I'm not a fearful person, but I'm starting to get worried. I don't experience Islamophobia on a day-to-day basis, but I've had a few unpleasant experiences. I've been yelled at; I've had a few comments made. People look at me differently sometimes and it stinks, but when people start to talk to me, they're like, 'Oh, you're OK.' They're surprised. People seem more willing to approach me when I have my daughter with me. She's a conversation-starter, like my little accessory. My younger brother is 14. His teacher singled out him and two other Muslim students by asking them not to be offended when he told the class they had to be vigilant of suspicious people right now. How was that not supposed to offend him?"
Sumaya is the mother of two children, ages 5 and 2, and lives in Massachusetts.
"All I can think of is the future: our children, my children. Especially my boy, my firstborn; my joy. My husband and I are proud to have bought him up with knowledge of our faith and way of life — Islam, which really does mean 'peace,' stemming from the word 'salaam,' which as a greeting means 'peace be with you.' In his five years of life, my son has known joy, peace, and comfort as a Muslim. Our lives are stitched through with the thread of our faith. We are not just Muslims on a Friday; we try to incorporate it into our everyday living. Part of this thread is respect for people of all faiths and I am grateful to have a diverse community of friends and relatives to whom my son is exposed. At the tender age of 5, he knows some people celebrate Christmas and others Diwali, some people go to church and others to synagogues, and that he also has his own celebrations.
All he knows of Islam is that kindness only beautifies a thing and that all the prophets of God, from Adam to Noah to Jesus to Muhammad, were on earth to teach it. He imagines the prophets were superheroes given superpowers by God and loves each story, because that is the language of good guys and bad guys is the one he understands. He loves the story of the prophet Joseph and his big bad brothers, and will listen with rapture till the end when Joseph forgives those same big bad brothers and shows them mercy. His face breaks out in a smile every time he recounts prophet Moses' 'power staff' that could separate the sea and let the good guys walk through."
Ayesha is the mother of three children, ages 6, 2, and two weeks, and lives in Texas.
“I always try to keep my composure in the face of such tragedies. My eldest child is nearly 7. Sadly, kids his age have seen too much in such a short time. Every time something happens, I try not to make him feel any different. We as a family discuss the event and try to answer all the questions that his little mind may have. I've never shunned him from asking a question, but at the same time I don't want to disturb his normal life.
While we were watching Paris Attacks coverage on TV, my son kept asking questions. He asked the obvious questions such as 'Why are the bad guys killing good people?' 'Where did they get their guns and bombs from?' One thing that stood out to him was a comment by a survivor. The survivor said, 'We were being shot at as if we were birds.' It disturbed him deeply because he could put it into perspective. I tried to comfort his heart by giving him examples of good people who are striving to bring peace to the world. We belong to the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, whose motto, “Love for all, hatred for none,” always works well in such situations. He knows that he is not supposed to hate anyone and is taught to pray both for the victims and for the culprits, so they become good people.
I would like to tell non-Muslim mothers that, as mothers, we all share a common goal, and that is to create a safe and peaceful world for our children. No mother in the world would like to raise her children in a hostile environment. We feel double pain every time ISIS commits an atrocity in the name of Islam. We mourn as Muslims for having our faith hijacked, and we mourn as mothers because it makes our kids' future more vulnerable. I would also like to encourage non-Muslim mothers to feel comfortable reaching out to us and speaking with us. Don't be shy about it. Let's dialogue so we can grow together with love and education.”
Eamon is the mother of two children, ages 7 and 4, and lives in Texas.
“My sons are quite young. Therefore they do not know what is going on in Paris right now, nor have other students approached them with this information. We don't engage in talks about Islamophobia with my children because we feel it is better to help them identify themselves with positive actions, not the negative actions of others. We are blessed to live in a country where diversity is a staple, and we embrace it by teaching our children to love others.
I would like non-Muslim mothers to know, like any mother, no matter what background, it is hard raising your children. Children are a very rare and precious gem that we try and protect from all negative things in the world. Like any parent, we are teaching them from right and wrong, and how to be a better person in the world. The only difference is we teach our children from a young age on how to be a practicing, faithful Muslim."
Ayesha is the mother of two children, ages 9 and 4, and lives in Maryland.
My 9-year-old is a fourth grader and pays attention to things, so we've definitely had some talks with him. He's heard of ISIS through radio snippets in the car, listening to my husband and me talk about it here and there, and at school perhaps, so we've discussed just the basics with him — no gory details, of course. At school and at home, he's taught that everyone is equal and deserves respect. He also understands that there are people who do bad things, and that the group they might belong to is irrelevant because that's not what makes people do bad things. He knows that 'ISIS sucks,' but, to him, there is absolutely no correlation between ISIS and Islam because it doesn't matter. And that is exactly the understanding I want him to grow up with.
Probably the most difficult conversation we've had with him in this arena was after the Chapel Hill murders in February . I knew the victims. They grew up in my home community and were killed in my college town. Because we planned on visiting the grieving family, I had to let my son know what happened.
How do I make my 9-year-old son understand that someone could walk into our home and kill us for being Muslim? I don't think that's something I'm willing to have him understand yet. He lives in a world of tolerance and love, and it takes time and maturity to understand that that reality coexists with the very real possibility of violence.
Images: Russell Bernice/Flickr, Courtesy of the individuals featured (7)