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Muslim teacher creates summer reading list for families who want to fight Islamophobia


By Jeremiah Rodriguez, Writer

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    SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (CTV Network) — Rabia Khokhar remembers all of the summers she spent as a teenager with her nose in books thanks to reading challenges from the Toronto Public Library.

Now, a resource teacher in the Greater Toronto Area, Khokhar sees those challenges as a way to help the next generation of children “think about their role in creating an inclusive world and community.”

Last week, she tweeted out an in-depth list of children’s books centered around Muslim voices and authors. The books touch on everything from cooking with parents, music, belief in oneself and adventure — all in an effort to encourage parents and fellow educators to do their part in fighting Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment in their own circles.

“I think if you can see yourself in an experience like family, friendship, teamwork or sports — universal experiences — I really believe that’s one of the ways that we can build bridges of understanding and really counter those negative stereotypes with children,” Khokhar told by phone Monday.

Some of the titles, written by Canadian and American authors, include “Salma The Syrian Chef,” “Barakah Beats,” “Agent Zaiba Investigates,” “Malika’s Surprise,” “Sadiq and the Fun Run,” “Fatima’s Great Outdoors,” “Like the Moon Loves The Sky,” and “The Proudest Blue.”

“I think every-day stories restore the dignity of people,” Khokhar said, explaining that doing something fun like a reading challenge is one of the best ways to not only help children realize how much power they have but get families to empathize with marginalized communities.

She recently spent around a month putting it together but said she’d been thinking of the idea for a while.

Khokhar’s idea is very similar to reading lists featuring Black authors and Black-centred narratives, which garnered attention last year during the Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations against systemic racism.

“Our voices have always been here but there’s always been structures that have prevented our voices from being heard or even being excluded,” Khokhar said, adding she never saw herself reflected in the reading materials growing up in the Canadian school system.

So throughout her career in education, she’s endeavored to make curriculums more inclusive.

MUSLIM CHILDREN MUST FEEL INCLUDED: RESEARCHER Khokhar is no stranger to work tackling weighty subjects, her past work in the schools led to winning Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s 2020-2021 Anti-Racist and Equity Activism Award.

“[Books] have always been a way for me to center voices of people who are experiencing racism, discrimination and religious oppression,” she said, but noted there’s a caveat in her reading list: anti-Muslim oppression is not the main theme in her list.

Taking an idea from critically-acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Khokhar wants to go beyond “single-stories” narratives, which only showcase one aspect of a marginalized groups lives, i.e. oppression, pain or anti-Black racism.

Khokhar said she’s honoured people have noticed that extra effort.

Muna Saleh from Concordia University in Edmonton

One of those people is Muna Saleh, an assistant professor of education at Concordia University in Edmonton, who said she was “so heartened by the list.”

“I was really impressed, Mashallah [meaning ‘good job’ in Arabic], with her ability to bring forward so many different authors and experiences and intersectionality,” Saleh told in a phone interview. “Too often people view Muslims as just a monolith. And that’s not true.”

As a Palestinian mother and visible Muslim herself, Saleh was proud so many different cultures and Muslim communities were highlighted in Khokhar’s list. She said Muslim children, especially now, “need to feel like they’re that they’re valid, that they belong, especially in classrooms.”

But Saleh, who has a Ph. D. in school curriculum studies, said not having Muslim of voices as part of every-day education is “also devastating, in all honesty, for non-Muslim children and families.”

“Everybody needs to be made aware of the different ways of being Muslim, who are neighbours are, and just the need to take care of each other.”

Khokhar said her list is simply one small but important step for parents and educators when it comes to the ongoing, daily work of equity and inclusion.

“We can’t have a Muslim kid only being highlighted during Islamic Heritage Month or Black students only having their their identity represented during Black History Month,” she said. “This is how we start but they can’t be where we end up.”

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