A Call for Equal Holidays: City Council Urges Bloomberg to Adjust School Calendar to Recognize Two Muslim Holy Days

John Cheng Jul 23, 2009

Last December, seven-year-old Huyam Belguet stayed home to celebrate Eid Ul-Adha, one of the holiest days on the Islamic calendar, while her first-grade class went to see The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center.

Huyam’s mother, Isabel Bucaram, tried to explain the importance of celebrating a holiday central to their faith, but Huyam was upset and confused.

“Why is school not closed?” she asked.

The Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, an alliance of more than 80 religious, immigrant, education and labor organizations, is working to ensure that in the future, schoolchildren will no longer have to ask this question.

The Muslim holidays of Eid Ul-Adha and Eid Ul-Fitr, also known as the Eids, are currently not observed in New York City public schools. Christian and Jewish holidays, on the other hand, are recognized. Bucaram, 36, who lives in Astoria, Queens, joined the coalition’s campaign for recognition of the Eids in February 2009. The coalition was formed after the 2006 Regents exams fell on Eid Ul-Adha, spurring an outcry among Muslim parents and students.

Muslims represent one of the fastest growing religious communities in New York City. Approximately 600,000 Muslims live in the city, according to Columbia University’s Middle East Institute.

Currently, about 100,000 public school students — one in 10 — are Muslim, according to a 2008 report by Columbia University’s Teachers College. Proponents of Muslim school holidays argue that recognizing the first days of Eid Ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, and Eid Ul-Adha, which commemorates the prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son, would require only a minor adjustment to the school calendar and would spare Muslim students from make-up work and allow them to freely celebrate their religion.

At the outset, the coalition focused on mobilizing members of the Muslim community and increasing awareness about the Eids. However, more than a year ago, the coalition started focusing its efforts on convincing the City Council to pass a resolution calling on the mayor to recognize the Eids as school holidays.

The coalition’s varied tactics, from rallies and letter-writing to lobbying council members and speaking at council hearings, were rewarded June 30 when the City Council passed a non-binding resolution calling for the Eids to be incorporated into the school calendar. The resolution was sponsored by the council’s only Muslim member, Robert Jackson, a Democrat who represents District 7 in Upper Manhattan and chairs the council’s Education Committee.

“It’s the best expression, and most sincere expression of tolerance by allowing these holidays,” said Sadiq Abdul Malik, 55, who worships at a mosque in the Bronx and was at the City Council meeting with other coalition members when the resolution was approved.

However, since the resolution is non-binding and Mayor Michael Bloomberg has publicly stated he will ignore the legislation, the council’s efforts are only symbolic.

“One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school,” Bloomberg said June 30.

However, there may be hope for such legislation in the New York Legislature. In 2007, a bill preventing standardized tests from being held on religious holidays, including the Eids, was signed into law.

The state legislature is also considering a bill sponsored by Assemblyman Michael Benjamin (D-Bronx) and State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem), that would require New York City public schools to recognize the Eids.

Local legislation has already been passed in Dearborn, Mich., and several New Jersey townships including Trenton, Paterson and Atlantic City.

According to Bakary Camara, the public relations officer for the Gambian Society of New York, if the state legislature passed the bill, “There would be no more discussion from the mayor.”

Faced with limited funding, the coalition is hesitant to sue the school system. Rabbi Michael Feinberg, who heads the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, an organization that has been involved with the issue of Muslim school holidays, said a lawsuit would be costly and would fail to inspire broad civic participation.

Though coalition organizers are hopeful about the state legislation, they were initially concerned that members of the legislature who did not represent New York City residents and were not familiar with the issue would have been less effective than previous efforts lobbying city council members, Camara said.

As the coalition continues to pressure Bloomberg to recognize the resolution, Bucaram remains worried that she will have to pull her daughter and two-year-old son, Haany, out of school in order to observe the Eids in the future.

If her children couldn’t celebrate, said Bucaram, “It would be an empty day for me, as a parent, and as a person.”

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