By Fatima Ashraf
It’s Eid again. In New York City, public schools will be closed so Muslim families can celebrate. I am happy for everyone who worked tirelessly to get our holiday on the calendar, and I am happy for everyone who is able to take their kids to prayer. But honestly, I am not rejoicing that NYC’s 1.1 million public school children get the day off. Here’s why:
My kids are very lucky. My husband and I are gainfully employed. We can take paid time off of work whenever we want. We can also (barely) afford good quality child care. Having our kids at home when school is closed is not a big deal. But this is not the case for everyone.
Low-income families must decide between losing a day’s pay or paying for a day of childcare when schools are closed. Ten percent of NYC’s 1.1 million students are Muslim, this is no doubt a large number. However, 80 percent or 810,000 NYC public school students come from homes with incomes less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL). This means that a family of four has an annual pre-tax household income below $44,955 each year. This breaks down to $865 per week.
Now consider the cost of childcare. The average daily cost for center-based care in America is $40 per child, and in NYC it ranges from $59-$113 per child, per day. The nationwide average hourly salary for a nanny is $13 and in NYC it is $15. Childcare costs for two-parent households are approximately 15 percent of annual household income. For single-parent homes, it’s 25 percent. Even with federal subsidies, 60 percent of child care costs fall onto the parents.
Simply put, school closures for working class, low-income and poor families are financially debilitating.
I used to work for a non-profit organization that provided free literacy classes for adults. My students were learning reading, writing and arithmetic, primarily to help their children with their homework. When public schools were closed, many of the adult learners in my program did not come to their evening classes, which slowed down their progress. They picked up night shifts to make up for their day of lost pay or to pay for the childcare they needed to hire.
My students spoke at length about how days off of school – due to holidays, weather or sickness – were a huge financial burden on them. Many also shared how days off meant days without (or with minimal) breakfast and lunch.
Now, add Eid to the list of days that schools are closed. It was bad enough to see so many scramble to find child care, stress about taking (unpaid) days off work and worry about how to feed mouths for all the other religious and federal holidays that shut down the school system. It breaks my heart that my two holidays, marked by charitable giving and sacrifice, are putting financial strain on so many.
I am focusing on Eid for several reasons: First, because I am Muslim and it’s my holiday. Second, because I regret not speaking up when my friends and family were fighting for Eid school holidays. I did not want to stand in the way of Muslims organizing or cause divisions in a community so in need of unity. But, as a mom of school-age children who is seeing the impact on my kids’ classmates and their parents, I am compelled to speak now.
Third, because the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, was a fierce advocate for the poor. He put the needs of the poor before his own and before those of his own family, and said, “If you love the poor and bring them near you, God will bring you near Him on the Day of Resurrection.” (Narrated by Anas Ibn Malik, Hadith al Tirmidhi)
Fourth, I don’t think that identity politics (Christians and Jews have school holidays, and so should we) are what lead to a better world for our most disadvantaged citizens. There’s a hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him, where he says, “I do not fear poverty for you, but rather I fear that you will compete for riches. And I do not fear for your mistakes, but rather I fear for what you do on purpose.” (Narrated by Abu Hurairah, musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal) The hard push to incorporate Eid into school holidays feels more to me like a case of “keeping up with the Joneses” — in this case, Christians and Jews, rather than seeking equal representation.
Fifth, while it is unfair to exclude Eid when Jewish and Christian holidays are given days off, it’s still unfair for the countless other religions who also want their holidays recognized. Also, in future years, Eid might not fall on the same day for everyone.
Basically, I really believe that Muslims can be at the forefront of policy changes that go beyond benefiting just our own community. To the other Muslim communities in other cities organizing to incorporate Eid into the public school calendar, I say, please, do organize. But consider what adding another holiday will do to the most marginalized members of the public school system. There might be other options.
Can we organize together with other religious communities? Can we ask public schools to get rid of all religiously affiliated holidays and instead allow children a certain number of “floating days” to take off whenever they want to celebrate whatever they want? Can we ask school districts to budget for childcare for low-income parents when schools are closed? Can we ask schools to remain open for meal times? Can we fight as hard (or harder) for economic justice as we do for Eid in the calendar?
To those communities who have already secured Eid school holidays, please reflect on how our day impacts the working class and low income and poor families. Work with your child’s school to let parents know they can find meals elsewhere. Serve those meals at the masjid or at another publicly accessible location(s). Bring together other Muslim parents in the school to offer childcare for those who need it. Pressure the school district to make childcare accommodations in future years. Start advocating for policies that improve the quality of life for the working class, low-income, and poor populations. As Muslims, this is our real responsibility.
Fatima Ashraf is with the Open Society Foundations in New York City and also teaches public policy at the City University of New York. Her work focuses on criminal justice, democratic transparency, racial justice and economic equality. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three sons and is committed to raising children with an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, anti-poverty, and pro-human world view.