Monday, August 14, 2006

American High School Graduation

An American High School Graduation That Should Be a Model for All
Ray Hanania, Arab News

It was a small high school graduation that took place in Chicago’s Southwest Suburbs, consisting of only 28 students.

They all shared the same hopes, dreams and career aspirations with other teenagers who are graduating from thousands of high schools all across the United States.

But this group is different. They wore white gowns. Their silvered tassels hung from the left side of their cap and were switched to the right after receiving their certificates. And they all wore white-laced hijab. All 28 of the young women are Muslim and graduates of the Aqsa School, an accredited Islamic high school in Bridgeview, Illinois.

That their ceremony passed without any media attention is not unusual. About the only time the mainstream American media covers Muslims and Arabs is when the event relates to the “war on terrorism” or feeds the growing Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment of American society.

There are about four million Arabs in the United States, split evenly between Muslims and Christians. And, there are about seven million Muslims in the United States, about 22 percent are Arab.

Unlike their teenager contemporaries, nearly all boasted honor distinctions and membership in the National Honor Society. Their future plans were shared with the audience of about 300 parents, grandparents and siblings by the Aqsa School principal, Khalida Baste, who also wore a hijab and traditional abaya.

Nearly every one of the graduates said they wanted to serve those in need. All said they wanted to be not only good Muslims but good Americans, too. Like their parents.

Most said they planned to pursue careers in nursing. A few said they wanted to be doctors. Some said they hoped to enter the world of business, a place where not only Muslims struggle but women in general face challenges of gender discrimination.

Two said they hoped to become journalists, with one saying her goal was to work at the Al-Jazeera Satellite television network.

One said she wanted to work to support “the starving young children in Africa, give a voice to the prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison, and champion the rights of Palestinians in the Israeli occupation.”

They will all go on to college. Moraine Valley. Robert Morris. The University of Illinois at Chicago. Loyola. And, the University of Chicago. One will travel to the occupied West Bank to study at the besieged but honored Birzeit University.

The fact that they are all women graduating from college and pursuing advanced careers also stabs at the heart of a vicious stereotype that somehow only women in the Arab and Muslim world face excessive discrimination.

Discrimination against women occurs throughout the world in male-dominated societies. Muslims, at least, can boast that three of the largest Muslim nations of Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh elected women heads of state.

One day, the United States will elect their first woman president. The closest Americans have come to a woman head of state has been on television, with Geena Davis playing the nation’s first woman president on the popular TV program “Commander in Chief.”

Maybe, America’s next president might be one of the graduates of the Aqsa school, which was founded nearly 20 years ago and named after one of the holiest mosques in Islam located in the city of Arab East Jerusalem. It was built, in part, with a donation from Saudi Arabia and funds raised among the growing Arab and Muslim population in Chicago, which numbers more than 250,000.

Sabrina Ahmad, the Salutatorian, seemed to reflect the pride and commitment of the graduating class best when she said, “We have learned much about our religion that we would not have learned anywhere else,” and quoting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who advised others “to seek education from the cradle to the grave.”

Graduate Sanah Yassin said, “Here standing before you are 28 smart Muslim ladies, some of whom are the first to ever graduate in their families.”

Hind Saleh, the mother of one graduate and speaking on behalf of all the proud parents, noted the closeness of Muslims to mainstream American society when she said, “When I was young I did not have a school like this. My parents did not want me to go to public school, so they enrolled me at an all girls Catholic school.”

There, she said, she learned to respect the family, God and her society. If only every graduating class in America could boast having students like them.

— Ray Hanania is a Palestinian American journalist and author. He can be reached at