While progress has been made, Muslim students say administration’s support during Ramadan is lacking
AU’s Muslim Student Association talks funding, community during the pandemic
Muslim students celebrating Ramadan at American University in the midst of finals season said the lack of support from AU and the unique challenges of the pandemic made it difficult to observe the holiday.
The holiday ran from April 12 to May 12, encompassing the entirety of finals. Despite meetings with administrators and some moves in support of their requests, students said the University’s actions were not enough.
In preparation for Ramadan, the Muslim Student Association organized a panel of representatives to meet with Dean of Education Jessica Waters and interim University Chaplain Reverand Bryant Oskvig to discuss possible academic accommodations for Muslim students during the holy month.
“We were saying simple things that we wanted, we were like, ‘Okay, if we can get professors to give us extensions, accommodate us around exam times, just leniency,’” said junior Aqsa Rashid, co-president of MSA.
Administrators told the panelists that they were welcome to ask their professors for such accommodations.
“When we met with the students, we had originally said to them, ‘Of course you can approach your professors and ask for accommodations,’” Waters said. “Every student has the right to do that for religious observance and here’s the process for doing so.”
However, the students worried that not all professors would be responsive to requests for flexibility. Senior Areeba Yasin, MSA secretary, said that some MSA members “were scared to ask for accommodations” out of fear that faculty would not be understanding of Muslim practices.
“Obviously everyone practices religion differently, but Islam is so centered in community and tradition,” Yasin said. “And that’s something that a lot of people who aren't familiar with the religion may not realize. And so sometimes when we do ask for accommodations or when we try to explain our traditions, it’s kind of seen as very backwards.”
Due to this concern, MSA representatives asked if the administration could contact faculty directly to support them in their pursuit of accommodations.
In response to their request, Waters, Oskvig and Provost Peter Starr sent an email to all University and Washington College of Law faculty on April 7 so that, in Waters’ words, “faculty would know that this was an expectation.”
The administration representatives asked faculty members to “work with [their] students individually to arrive at the best accommodations to support their individual academic and religious lives.” The email listed potential accommodations that students might ask for, including the option to adjust exam times, breaks from class to observe times of prayer and asynchronous access to lectures.
MSA representatives expressed some concerns about what Rashid described as the “very vague language” of the email. Yasin said that it is “harmful” to the Muslim community for the administration to depend on professors to clearly communicate with students about different accommodation options.
“A lot of Muslim students ... are not active members of the Muslim Student Association, so they may not know what’s happening,” said Yasin. “And we don’t even have an accurate number of how many Muslim students are on campus. So it’s hard for us to properly go and support everyone.”
Islamophobia’s impact on Ramadan
According to members of MSA, much of the fear that surrounded Ramadan accommodations is rooted in experiences of Islamophobia among Muslim students at the University.
“For a lot of Muslim students on campus, especially students with very political majors — you know, SIS students, students who study political science, stuff like that — we have a lot of professors that are just straight-up Islamophobic,” Yasin said.
Freshman Qudsia Saeed, a member of MSA, decided to switch her major out of the School of International Service after what she describes as “many instances of Islamophobia” that came from professors and other students in the department.
In February, the department received backlash from Muslim students and other members of the AU community after it published an article written by Marisa Sette, a white student, in a collection of teaching cases, “Case Studies in Intercultural Communication.”
Sette’s article, titled “How Can You be a Feminist and Muslim?” described a fictional Muslim woman who wore a hijab. Yasin noted that the publication of this fictional case study took “a huge toll” on the MSA community.
“So many people just weren’t understanding our frustration that this white woman just decided that she was going to talk about our experiences and basically fetishize us and totally misunderstand why some Muslim women wear the hijab,” Yasin said.
Saeed echoed this sentiment, citing the controversy surrounding Sette’s article as “the trigger point” in her decision to drop the SIS major.
“When I realized that even in classes taught about Islam, it was just the white perspective or white teachers and I wouldn’t feel like I belonged there,” said Saeed. “I’d feel like I’d be teaching the class and I was like, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’ But then the Marisa Sette thing happened where I was just like, ‘I shouldn’t have to defend my identity. I’m here for an education.’”
In an email to The Eagle, Sette wrote that she developed the case study “in good faith.”
“I wish the MSA nothing but the best this Ramadan, and I hope that one day they will see that I never wrote the article with the intention of ill will nor do I hold any in my heart towards any member of their community,” she wrote.
Maintaining community and tradition in a pandemic
MSA representatives also expressed concerns about their organization’s budget and how that will affect their observance of Ramadan.
“One of the main things we have been struggling with since I came into AU is MSA does not have a lot of financial support,” Rashid said. “It feels like we’ve always struggled for money, just for events, basic items, and it’s really frustrating because we see other clubs like KPU get literally so much money.”
At the meeting with Waters and Oskvig, MSA members asked the University to provide some funds for Iftar, the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan to break their daily fasts.
“A really big part of Ramadan is spending time with the community and breaking fast as a community and obviously praying together,” Yasin said. “And that’s hard to do right now.”
Not only is MSA struggling to come together in person due to the pandemic, but the day after their meeting about accommodations and Iftar funds, they received an email from administration that their office in the Kay Spiritual Life Center had been infested with rats and will not be usable for the remainder of the semester.
Ultimately, the Kay Spiritual Life Center agreed to fund three Iftar dinners. Rashid said she believed that having the panel “helped a little bit” in their decision to include this in the budget.
Rashid said she was “grateful” for this allocation of Iftar funds, as it allowed MSA to “feel a little bit of community” as they celebrate Ramadan in the midst of the stress of both the pandemic and the end of the semester.
"The thing that I think I missed the most about Ramadan before COVID was being able to pray together in unison with people, so even though it was only a couple people it still feels nice to do that,” Rashid said.
MSA has also been organizing other ways for AU’s Muslim community to celebrate together in accordance with COVID guidelines.
“We’re planning events constantly,” Saeed said. “We’re trying to do an event a week.”
As a freshman, Saeed said that she is really enjoying her time with MSA because of the tight bond that the organization has.
“We do game nights and community building,” Saeed said. “We focus on that as well as advocacy and activism and inviting guest speakers.”
MSA kicked off their Ramadan celebrations with a game night on April 12. They also participated in a social mixer on April 16, which included MSAs from George Washington University, Georgetown University and Howard University.
“It’s definitely been hard online because it’s really hard to feel that sense of community,” Yasin said. “But I still think that we’re doing everything we can to feel any sense of community.”
Representatives of MSA asked for more acknowledgment and awareness from their peers throughout the holiday and beyond.
“I think this is a time where a lot of us feel like we hear a lot of microaggressions from our peers because they don’t fully understand what we’re doing. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, not even water?’ or, ‘Oh my God, 30 days, that’s so hard,’” Yasin said. “It’s hard because the point of a microaggression is that you feel othered, feel like what you’re doing is not normal.”
Yasin does not believe that students who react to Ramadan customs this way were doing so with bad intentions. She said that some of these traditions are “difficult” to observe, but to her and many other members of the Muslim community, they represent “30 days of… building new habits, positive habits, practicing patience, practicing self awareness.”
“It’s supposed to be difficult because it helps us build our new good habits. It helps us self-reflect very, very deeply,” Yasin said. “And it’s purposefully there to serve as a … time of the year where we move away from the material capitalistic values that our society has created and just kind of focus on ourselves, our community.”
In addition to being respectful of Ramadan practices, Rashid asked non-Muslim students to be mindful when scheduling meetings and dividing up workloads “if [they’re] working with someone who’s experiencing Ramadan” during a class project or extracurricular activity.
“I was working on a group project with these two non-Muslim students and they were just kind of like, ‘Okay, what time should we meet? Because we want to be respectful of you guys fasting and stuff like that,’” said Rashid. “It’s just like a simple question asking if there’s anything we can do to support… goes a really long way.”
Saeed also hoped that the month of Ramadan could serve as a reminder to the AU community about what it means to address Islamophobia in a genuine, productive way without being performative.
She added that wishing Muslim peers a happy Ramadan is something that “feels really nice and special.”
“I think it’s just a nice feeling because we feel like we also belong in this community,” Saeed said. “I always make sure to wish my Jewish friends and Christian friends their holidays so it’s nice to also have that reciprocated. Even just acknowledging our holidays and wishing us is something that means something to us.”