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The Muslim way of parenting

Tue, Nov 04, 2008

Despite Muslims being the third-largest religious group in the State, their children are growing up amid increasing pressures to conform to the norm, writes Sheila Wayman

IT IS Saturday morning and Aziza Ogunseye is back home in her modern townhouse on the outskirts of Bray, Co Wicklow, after dropping three of her four children at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Clonskeagh. They make the trip seven days a week.

Monday to Friday, they go to the Muslim National School at the centre, and on Saturday and Sunday mornings they attend Koran school in the mosque. With school from 9am to 2.50pm on weekdays and eight hours of religious teaching at the weekends, it is a demanding schedule for the eldest girl, Bilikis (11), and her two brothers, eight-year-old Arif and six-year-old Akram.

"I know it's hard but it is not for ever," says Ogunseye, as her youngest daughter, three-year-old Fawziyah, climbs onto her lap in their front room. Her husband, Sina, who is self-employed, sits in the corner using a laptop balanced on his knees.

The children will go to Koran school for two or three years. Once they are able to read the Koran, they can do it at home on their own. Religious school is not compulsory for Muslims but it's what she chooses for her children.

She and her husband came from Nigeria in 1999, with their first child, looking for a better life. They have residency permits and have applied for Irish citizenship, which their subsequent three children have because they were born in the Rotunda.

They send their children to the Muslim National School on Roebuck Road because they want them to learn the basic principles of their faith.

"I want them to have a belief in the Koran and in the religion. I think if they have that, they have everything, so they can deal with everyday things, obstacles that come to them."

From third class to sixth class, the children go to the mosque every afternoon for prayers. They are also taught Arabic. Otherwise, the 270 pupils are learning Irish, English, maths, following exactly the same curriculum as any other national school.

Muslims are now the third- largest religious group in the State, behind Catholics and Church of Ireland. Some 32,500 people said their religion was Islam in the 2006 Census, up by nearly 70 per cent compared with 2002. Just over 55 per cent of Muslims were either Asian or African nationals, with 30.7 per cent having Irish nationality.

Ogunseye is teaching her eldest girl to wear the hijab, as she herself does, whenever they leave the house. Girls start to wear it from about the age of eight to 10, as they are approaching puberty.

"It is not compulsory," Ogunseye explains, "but depends on what you want for them."

Bilikis is not at all resistant to it, according to her mother, as she has been going to the Muslim school since the age of four and has seen the older girls wearing it. "I tell her it is not fair to leave the house without the hijab on and she totally accepts it."

There is no Muslim secondary school in Dublin, so Bilikis will move on to St Raphaela's in Stillorgan where, Ogunseye says, many girls from the Muslim national school go.

"They allow them to use the hijab," she explains. "I will not send my girls to any school that does not accept hijab."

What does she say to people who think Muslim children should not be allowed to wear the hijab in school?

"I am just trying as a mother or as a parent to bring them up . So when they are older and you are not with them, you will have this peace of mind that they will be okay wherever they are.

"Islam is about moderation; I do not want my girls to wear the full hijab at school. They will wear the normal school uniform and put a hijab in a colour that goes with the uniform and not a big hijab."

She thinks it's right that it is left up to individual schools to decide whether girls are allowed to wear the hijab. "It depends on what the rules of the school are. I cannot come to the country and expect them to change a rule because of me. If it suits me I'll stay, if it doesn't suit me, I'll go."

Asiya Al Tawash was one of the founders of the Muslim school and now works there as a special needs assistant. Her daughter, Awatif (12), has already made the big transition from there to a secondary school, Our Lady's in Templeogue. Does she find it hard wearing her hijab in a mainstream school?

"I guess she would have when she first started. I was talking to her about it the other day and I think it was quite hard in the beginning. In some ways she was more worried about it than the people around her.

"At that age they want to blend in and be the same. In fact, what she has found is that they just accept her for who she is and she has made friends. She doesn't have a problem with it at all now."

The hijab was not something Al Tawash wore when she was a child. Formerly Ann O'Connell (and she still uses that first name with family and others), she was brought up as a Catholic by her Cork-born father and English mother in England, before they came to Ireland in her late teens. She converted to Islam as an adult.

The conversion was a "huge process" which was coloured by many different things over a long period, she explains. "It was something I felt comfortable with, something I understood; I liked the sense of community, that sense of practising what you believe and not just taking it out now and again. I think the context of Islam suited me and my personality."

It was five years after her conversion that she met her Iraqi husband, Mudafar Al Tawash, who is the administrator at the Islamic Foundation of Ireland on the South Circular Road. They live in Ballycullen, near Knocklyon, with their daughter and his mother from Baghdad.

"My family were worried at first, probably both by the conversion and the marriage."

But then "they saw that I was living a normal life and that I had a great husband. People's fears are allayed when they realise you are not doing anything terribly different.

"I don't see a huge difference in the way I am bringing up my daughter from the way I was brought up. She does things that are appropriate to her age. She likes all the things that pre-teen girls like. She has a cousin who is almost the same age and they like the same things, do the same things, there isn't a huge difference between them.

"Like all children of her age she probably is beginning to question parents and all the things that pre-teens do. But I would say she is quite accepting of Islam. It is the way she has been brought up. Our house is a practising Muslim house; it's always been there and she knows who she is."

They say prayers five times a day: just before sunrise, lunchtime, mid-afternoon, sunset and about an hour and a half after sunset. Awatif is excused the prayers while she is at school.

They don't eat pork, only halal meat, and they don't take alcohol. She and her husband fast between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, while their daughter fasts the occasional day during that month.

Otherwise, says Al Tawash, "our daily lives are in many ways much like everybody else's.

"People sometimes think we are going to be terribly exotic but we are really not. I'm working, she comes home from school, we are trying to get homework done and dinner cooked and making sure we have hockey sticks for tomorrow and all that sort of thing.

"Then at the weekend, it's shopping and cleaning and trying to get a walk in the country, or in Marlay Park."

Awatif socialises both in the wider community and at the mosque. "Of course then there is MSN. She spends ages talking to her Muslim friends on the computer" - especially to her former classmates at the national school who are now dispersed to different schools.

Al Tawash believes Muslim children like her daughter are very well integrated. "Most of the children who are teenagers now in our community were born here and grew up here. They are not foreigners."

However, socialising can be a particular challenge for older Muslim teenagers in Ireland.

"The pub, club, boyfriend - that sort of scene is going to be the most difficult because they are mixing all the time with people who would be interested in that and it is where young people socialise," says Al Tawash.

"Alcohol is forbidden and that whole pub/club culture would be very alien to Muslims. My own daughter knows that it is not acceptable in our house. We have made her aware from a very young age what is acceptable to us, and what's not. I think that is what most parents do."

Indeed, she remembers her own mother telling her that while she was a child and lived in her parents' house, she had to follow her parents' rules.

"Later on they become adults and have minds of their own, but at the moment she is a child who lives in our house, is brought up by us and has to follow our rules. Such is life," she says with a laugh.

"We do talk to her and she would understand why we have certain rules and why we think certain things are not appropriate."

In the same way, Ogunseye seems confident that her four children will not rebel against their religion when they move into their teenage years.

"For a mother, or any reasonable parent, if you are good, the children will follow. If you teach them the right thing from when they are young, they will grow up with that. It can be difficult, but you have to keep reminding them." She talks to her own mother back in Lagos on the phone every day.

The children mix well on the Giltspur Heights estate, says Ogunseye. "We have very nice neighbours, always very, very good," and they have not had problems with racism.

Her eldest daughter is a good athlete and goes to an athletics club in Belfield every Wednesday afternoon. If the children go to a non-Muslim household, Ogunseye just needs to tell the parents what they eat.

"What I found in this country, Irish people do respect your religion; we respect each other, which is good. We can tolerate each other and learn things from each other."

As a family they speak mainly English and the children are taught through English at school, as well as learning Irish and Arabic. "It is amazing that they can speak Irish, not fluently but what they are learning at school," says Ogunseye. At home she is trying to teach them Yoruba, the mother tongue of both herself and her husband, which is one of Nigeria's three main languages.

Al Tawash also believes her fellow Irish are quite accepting of Muslims, although "it did change after 9/11. I think the world changed after 9/11 and it did affect the way people look at Muslims.

"In general," she adds, "when they know you on a one-to-one basis, they see that you are like everybody else."

Rites of passage

As soon as a Muslim baby is born, the father whispers the call to prayer, or adhaan, into his or her right ear.

Seven days later, the naming ceremony is held and the birth is celebrated with family and friends.

The baby's head is shaved just before or after this ceremony. This is to show that the child is the servant of Allah. The hair is weighed and the equivalent weight "in silver" is given to charity - "about 7", according to Aziza Ogunseye.

Muslim baby boys are often circumcised when they are seven days old, although it can be done any time before puberty.

There are no other rites of passage for children in Islam, no equivalent of First Communion or Confirmation.

Marriage proposal: 'we want her to marry a Muslim'

The prospect of marriage is some years off for the daughters of the Ogunseye and Al Tawash families. But both mothers hope their girls will marry another Muslim.

"We would want her to marry a Muslim, we would encourage her to marry a Muslim," says Irishwoman Asiya Al Tawash of her 12-year-old daughter Awatif.

"I would think she would marry a Muslim but then I am sure my mother thought I would marry a Catholic.

"Nothing is written in stone, but certainly it is what we are bringing her up to do," she adds.

It is the same for Aziza Ogunseye from Nigeria, when she talks about her eldest daughter, Bilikis (11).

"She can marry from any country, from any colour, but hopefully a Muslim," she says.

Under Islam, women are not allowed to marry a non-Muslim because they would be under the authority of a man who might prevent her from practising her religious beliefs.

Men are allowed to marry certain non-Muslim women, practising Christians or Jews, but not atheists.

2008 The Irish Times

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