Innocence is a trait that defines childhood. It is what allows them to be open, creative, optimistic, and beautifully naive.
My son is no exception. His curiosity, combined with his lack of filter, have made for some funny moments – and a few awkward situations too. One particular occasion I found myself distressed and in tears... after he drew a picture.
It was a typical morning getting the kids ready for school. Actually, it was a little atypical because we were ready early instead of the usual last minute dash out of the house with my daughters hair half-brushed and my son still getting his tie on. The day was full of promise. “Why don’t you draw some pictures until it’s time to leave for school,” I suggest.
My son isn’t the best artist, but there are a few things that he does enjoy drawing. Cars, houses and aeroplanes pretty much summarise his drawing repertoire. He chose to draw the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and one he’s had a special interest in since we visited Dubai.
He came to show me. Naturally, I immediately praised the picture in that overly high-pitched tone we mothers do, while frantically preparing lunches and book bags. “Well done! Look how nice you can draw, you should draw like this all the time”.
He beams with pride. “Can I show it to my teacher?”
“Of course you can, it’s a lovely picture”.
“Mum, did you like how high I drew the Burj Khalifa because it’s the tallest building in the world and did you like how I drew a plane and the plane is going really fast and oh it looks it’s about to crash into the building!”.
I look again. There is a plane. And it’s awfully close to the tower.
“Erm, this is a really nice picture but, you know what, let’s not take it to school.”
“Because you can draw nicer pictures about other things so let’s just leave this one home,” I say.
Because we’re Muslim and your teacher will think we are terrorist sympathisers, I think.
“The questions continue. Did you see it happen? How big was the plane? Can I see it on the news? Was it a really tall building?”
He ignores me and puts the picture in his bag. A change of approach is needed. He’s almost seven and I’m always reading articles about how we should give children more credit and explain clearly to them why they shouldn’t do something.
“Because one day this really happened, a plane really crashed into a building. It was a very sad day and lots of people died. That’s why you shouldn’t take this picture to school, because it might remind your teacher of this sad day and we wouldn’t want to make her feel sad would we?”
That’s a good age appropriate explanation, I think. Problem solved. He’ll leave the picture at home and we’ll move on.
“Oh my god,” he says, stunned yet curious. “A plane really crashed into a building? Was it in London? Was it near our house?”
Okay, it’s not quite over yet – but this is a significant world event that he would learn about eventually. I resolve to take this opportunity to educate him about it.
“No it happened in America, sometimes you might hear about it as 9/11 or September 11th.”
The questions continue. Did you see it happen? How big was the plane? Can I see it on the news? Was it a really tall building?
This is not going to plan. I’m beginning to regret saying anything and he doesn’t seem to be understanding the gravity of the situation. I need to explain it again, so he really understands this time. Maybe I should show him the video? Maybe that will make him realise how serious an event it was.
I show him a clip from the news. He looks at the video in shock, and then to his drawing.
“When did it happen again, Mum?”
“It happened September 11th, 2001 and it was A Very Sad Day,” I emphasise.
He writes something on his drawing, and shows me again. To my utter horror he has written September 11th on the piece of paper.
“What have you written? Why did you write that?” I say trying not to sound hysterical. He ignores my questions.
“My son doesn’t yet know that there are evil so-called Muslims who have committed acts of terrorism. In fact, he does not even know the word terrorism.”
“Do my friends Peter and Colin know about this? Can I tell them?”
“No I don’t think that’s a good idea, you can’t talk about this subject at all,” I say, failing this time to hide the hysteria in my voice and knowing full well that when you tell a child not to talk about something they will want to talk about it more.
What have I done? Why did I just give him all this information? Why did I show him the video? He is going to go to school and tell everyone ‘my mum showed me a video of 9/11’. I’m going to get arrested and put on a watch-list. I give it one last shot. There’s no way back now.
“The thing is... it was Muslims who crashed that plane. If you start talking about what happened then...” I hesitate, I don’t even know what I’m trying to say. I start again.
“Lots of people are very angry at the Muslims who crashed that plane and hurt all those people, and we are Muslims and we have to show we are not like them”.
I can see how I am not making any sense to him. He pauses in thought.
“Mum, do you mean those people crashed the plane on purpose?” he asks, wide-eyed and innocent. I realised I hadn’t even explained to him that it was done on purpose. All this time he thought it was an accident.
That realisation hits me hard. My son doesn’t yet know that there are evil so-called Muslims who have committed acts of terrorism. In fact, he does not even know the word terrorism. He doesn’t know that there are people who associate all Muslims with these people, or that when a black or Muslim person commits a crime, they are seen to represent his whole community. He doesn’t know that there is a rise in right-wing nationalism across Europe and the world. He has never read hateful online comments. Do I really want him to know this now?
I decided I will not say any more to him on the subject, especially as every time I spoke I seemed to dig a deeper hole for myself. I don’t want him to be self-conscious and worry what people will think of him because of his background or his faith. I don’t want to burden him with an understanding beyond his years.
As we walk to school a knot forms in the pit of my stomach. What if he tells his friends? I imagine a concerned mum phoning in the school: ‘I just need to report this because you never know with these things... better to be safe than sorry’. I imagine the mum telling her child it’s better you don’t hang out with this boy any more. I cringe at the thought of receiving a call from the school, asking me to come in to discuss my son talking about inappropriate things. I could explain what happened but the question marks will be there about me. It will sound like excuses, and the seeds of suspicion will be sown – I am a visibly Muslim woman after all.
The thoughts were nauseating. I should speak to the school about it before they speak to me. I get to the class and ask the teacher if I can have a private word for a few minutes.
“I cringe at the thought of receiving a call from the school, asking me to come in to discuss my son talking about inappropriate things”
“So the funniest thing happened this morning,” I say trying to sound very casual and jovial. As I attempt to explain the story all I am thinking is ‘why do I have to do this? Why do I have to justify myself?’ That same knot in my stomach has deepened now and the emotions running through my head have drained me.
My lip begins to quiver. Don’t do it, don’t do it I tell myself. But I can’t control it. My voice starts shaking and my eyes are watering and I find myself being comforted by the teacher. I apologise and quickly move away keeping my head down as the tears now stream down my face, hoping none of the parents will notice. Wishful thinking. A couple of mums approach me to check I’m okay. I am so embarrassed.
Even as I write about the incident I feel silly, but my fears about being judged are not unreasonable. I was reminded of the time a Muslim pupil incorrectly wrote he lived in a “terrorist” house instead of “terraced” and was interviewed by police. While I appreciate the dark humour in my son’s incident, it was also a sad realisation that as Muslims and as minorities we are conditioned to be fearful and apologetic about things we have not done. It saddens me that I felt that I had to explain myself to the teacher, and expose my child to something that I wouldn’t otherwise have done at this stage.
It has also made me realise that this is something that I will face more often as my children get older. Navigating the world of parenthood is hard enough; I want my children to be kind and considerate, to eat healthy, do sports and limit their screen time. I want them to be proud of their British Muslim identity too – but I fear this will be one of the biggest challenges I face. The relentlessly negative narratives from the media and agenda-driven politicians persistently depicting us as a policy concern, and the resulting micro-aggressions in our daily lives lead us to feel we need to go the extra mile to prove ourselves.
“I feel that I must always be on my best behaviour, and all it will take is one screw up to confirm what everybody ‘knows’”
Even worse, it leads us to internalise feelings of negative stereotypes and of our inferiority. I feel this way despite living in a lovely diverse multicultural community in West London where I rarely encounter overt racism – our school even had an Eid fair. But the feeling that I represent my ethnicity and religion is a constant pressure that nags at me. I feel that I must always be on my best behaviour, and all it will take is one screw up to confirm what everybody ‘knows’ – that Muslims are backwards, or inherently violent.
The incident gave me an uncomfortable insight into the depths of my own insecurities; of my fear of being judged, of my desire for acceptance, of carrying the weight of collective guilt for the atrocities that have been carried out by people in the name of my religion. These feelings are the insidious manifestations of Islamophobia. How do I protect my young children from these feelings which will shape their world view and undoubtedly impact their self-esteem and confidence?
I don’t think I have the answer to that question yet.
For now, this incident has given me a sense of defiance. I will not be apologetic about my identity. I will continue to raise them with the values that I believe in. I will shower them with love so that they always feel secure. I will expose them to people of different backgrounds and faiths and beliefs, and, as a teacher once told my daughter, I will teach them that everyone is special.
Because the beauty of young children is their simplistic view of life. They are authentic in their responses, unaffected by the opinions of others. When children get to know each other they do it without preconceived notions and judgements. It is something that many adults can learn from and has made me reflect on the times that I have perhaps judged others, and of my own unconscious biases.
As a mum I worry about the playground bully, the street thug, and the creep behind the internet. As a Muslim mum, I worry about my son being perceived as a future threat, and of the damaging effects of dehumanising news coverage and negative representations of Islam on my children.
I can only hope to shield them from this until they’re old enough to understand it, and resilient enough to overcome it.
Dr Huda Saad Jawad is a British-Iraqi dentist living in London with her husband and two children
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