Iowa City student continues push for school district to recognize Muslim holidays

Reem Kirja first began this push three years ago.
Published: Mar. 4, 2021 at 10:50 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - A student in the Iowa City Community School District has launched an online petition that has gathered nearly 5,000 signatures in a few months.

Her goal: to change the school district’s calendar for herself and future students.

“My goal is to have no school on Eid,” Reem Kirja, an eighth-grader at Northwest Junior High School in Coralville, said.

Kirja began this push three years ago, with fellow student Rayan Saeid, at Weber Elementary School. While Kirja said she lost momentum in the last couple years, she was inspired again last November, when she started the online petition and formed a club, “Ideal Reality Union,” with its initial goal to encourage the school board to create a district-wide day off for each the two holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

“I feel like if we have no school on Eid, and then people are going to ask, ‘Hey, why do we have no school?’ Because most people don’t know what Eid is at all, and so the teacher will be like, ‘Hey, you know it’s a Muslim holiday, and it’s kind of like Christmas, but they celebrate different things,’ and people will be like, ‘Hey, cool,’” Kirja said.

The two holy days are determined by the lunar cycle, so they don’t fall on the same day every year and are not necessarily celebrated during the school year, as their dates can sometimes fall during the summer break.

This year, for example, Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is May 13, while Eid al-Adha, which honors Ibrahim’s faithfulness in his willingness to sacrifice his son, is in late July.

Kirja said both days are busy, including going to prayer and spending time with loved ones, and compares it to the activity and significance associated with celebrating Christmas for Christians.

“We go around and visit everyone. And when I mean everyone, I mean everyone,” she said. “But we can’t really do that right now, due to COVID.”

Kirja takes the days off from school when the holidays fall during the academic calendar, but still has to make up the work she missed.

“But I feel for other people as well who can’t take the day off because they need the education and their parents make them go. And I feel like that’s kind of unfair,” she said.

The Iowa City Community School District approved the calendars for the next three school years in a Dec. 5 meeting, and as of now, none of them include a break for Eid.

Board Member Ruthina Malone voiced the lone “no” vote against the schedules.

“My nay vote is just standing by what I believe is fair and equitable for our students,” Malone said during the meeting. “We need to have a calendar that’s inclusive, not just for our Muslim students but those that recognize other religious holidays, if possible.”

Iowa City Superintendent Matt Degner said at the same meeting that the district will continue to meet with Kirja’s “No School on Eid” group and other religious leaders about recognizing their holy days, and that the calendars can be amended.

While Kirja said she appreciates seeing the thousands of people who have signed on to her petition, the support from her classmates and teachers means the most.

“As someone who’s been bullied in the past years, instead of teasing, I get support and encouraging words, so that’s kind of my push to keep going,” she said.

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