Like any mother, Sajida Shahjahan asks her 7- and 12-year-old sons about their day when they come home from school.
No matter what’s going on with the day, she always asks.
Most afternoons, they talk about what the boys learned in class, what they had for lunch or their homework. But lately, some of their conversations have included talks about bullying.
One day last year, Shahjahan’s older son, who was 11 at the time, came home from school shocked and upset by something that happened on the playground. Another student called him a terrorist.
Why would he say that? Shahjahan’s son wanted to know.
Before then, Shahjahan, who is Muslim, had tried to shield her sons from negative news. She didn’t talk to them about ISIS, thinking the boys were too young to understand why some people who claimed to be of the same faith as their family would commit horrific acts that were contradictory to what Islam teaches.
But after what happened to her son, Shahjahan came to a heartbreaking realization that she could no longer do that. She sat down with her son and talked to him about what she’d been trying to protect him from. She explained as best she could that he needs to stand firm in who he is. Shahjahan told him there are good people and bad people in every community, and sometimes people don’t know how to separate the good from the bad.
The incident on the playground wasn’t the last. Another day last year, a student told Shahjahan’s son that his father, an Oklahoma State University graduate who works as a civil engineer, worked for ISIS.
Already this school year, there have been four more similar incidents in which students have called Shahjahan’s older son derogatory names or made ignorant or offensive remarks, including: “What do Muslims say when they blow themselves up?”
Shahjahan said other minority students have been picked on, too, and she worries things will get worse before the election in November.
“As a mother, it is heartbreaking,” said Shahjahan, 39, who works as a high school English teacher and teaches English as a Second Language classes for Oklahoma City Community College. “It is heartbreaking that your child at this young age had to go through something like this.”
Shahjahan, who moved to the United States from Pakistan about 14 years ago, said she had never encountered anything like that until recently. She has wonderful friends and neighbors, and most of the people she meets are kind and courteous, she said.
The vast majority of interactions that Shahjahan has are positive. They far overshadow her negative experiences, but lately, those negative experiences have been growing in number.
“I do feel like things are changing,” Shahjahan said. “It is really sad, but at the same time, I still believe that there are more good people out there. For every one bad encounter that I have had, I see so many wonderful people all over the place wherever I go.”
Support from teachers and friends have helped her older son, who enjoys playing soccer, the guitar and “Pokemon Go”, to recover faster from the recent negative experiences, Shahjahan said.
She said she thinks the most important tenet of Islam — and something she tries to teach her sons — is the rights of people. If someone wrongs another person, he or she must seek forgiveness from that person, Shahjahan said.
“It asks me to treat human beings with compassion, with empathy, and do whatever good I can do for them,” she said. “That’s the guiding principle for me, and that’s what I want people to know about the religion.”
Islam teaches that if someone saves a human life, it is as if that person has saved all of humanity, and if someone takes a human life, it is as if that person has wronged all of humanity, Shahjahan said.
Shahjahan wears a hijab, or headscarf, for religious reasons, but lately, wearing it also has become a political statement, she said. Out of concern for her, some of her friends have suggested she stop wearing the hijab. But wearing the headscarf is her right, and Shahjahan doesn’t want to be scared out of doing something she believes in.
It’s also important for her that people see Muslim women are just like anybody else.
“Just like you, I go about my daily business,” she said. “I have a family, I have a job. I’m as normal as you. And I wear a headscarf. There are millions out there who are like me, and we are Muslims.”
Oftentimes, people who have misconceptions about Islam have never met someone who is Muslim. That’s why Shahjahan doesn’t mind when people approach her in public to ask questions about why she wears a headscarf.
“If I want to learn math, I’m not going to just Google math equations,” she said. “I’m going to learn from somebody who knows the subject. I think the exact same thing applies to faith.”
Earlier this year, Shahjahan attended Muslim Day at the Capitol. During a break between sessions, she approached a man who was there protesting and introduced herself. Shahjahan asked the man if he had any questions.
When the man asked why Muslim women aren’t allowed to drive, Shahjahan corrected his misconception by telling him that she drove there that day. Based on the man’s questions, it was obvious that he had never interacted with someone who was Muslim before, she said. People often tell her that she is the first Muslim they’ve seen or talked to, which is why those conversations are so important.
“We have to reach out,” she said. “We need to start those dialogues.”