Iowa City students advocate for time off to celebrate Eid

Northwest Junior High student Reem Kirja has been advocating for an Eid break from school since 2017. Recently, she took to petitioning and forming a local organization to further her efforts.


Jeff Sigmund

Iowa City Community School District sign 1725 North Dodge St. As seen on Thursday, Oct.15 ,2020.

Grace Hamilton, News Reporter

A petition urging the Iowa City Community School District to consider time off school for Muslim students and staff to celebrate Eid holidays has grabbed the attention of community members and school district leaders since its creation online earlier this month.

Eid is a Muslim celebration twice a year, and the dates shift based on the lunar calendar, so the holidays sometimes land on school days. The petition’s author, Northwest Junior High student Reem Kirja, says that the few days off would be more inclusive of the growing Muslim community and ease the stress on students who must choose between missing class or spending the important holiday in school.

Kirja is also the founder of a local club called Ideal Reality Union that aims to shed light on issues not often addressed by larger organizations.

She said Ideal Reality Union is an extension of the No School on Eid campaign she formed in 2017.

The petition had 181 signatures as of Tuesday, with a goal to reach 200. Those who signed also left comments at the bottom of the petition, voicing their support of Muslim rights and a desire for Muslims to feel included and welcomed in the community.

Interim Superintendent of Iowa City schools Matt Degner said the district is engaging in discussion with the No School on Eid campaign and different religious communities in Iowa City to better navigate the process of planning future school calendars.

“We want to be inclusive — we want to be fair,” Degner said. “We also understand the Eurocentric, white-Christian nature of our calendar, and so we’re appreciative of [the current conversation], but we feel like that will probably turn into a little bit of a larger conversation for us.”

Kirja said she was inspired to further pursue Eid advocacy after years of celebrating Eid during the school year. She said this experience is not well-understood by students and staff who celebrate Christmas.

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According to Muslim Aid, Eid celebrations occur twice each year; the first known as Eid-Ul-Fitur, which takes place at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and the second, Eid-ul-Adha, which comes after the annual Hajj pilgrimage. The calendar date for both holidays is subject to change because their celebration follows a lunar calendar. Sometimes the dates fall during the school year, and sometimes they don’t.

“I feel very strongly about my religion, and so do my parents,” Kirja said. “It was really stressful to try and come back [to school after Eid celebrations], especially as a third grader. At that time, I was already struggling to get the language … It was just so bad.”

The school board must approve calendar changes in a public hearing, to provide time off in the academic year, Iowa City School Board President Shawn Eyestone said. He added that the school board approves a three-year calendar that can be re-approved and changed on a rolling basis.

This process would also apply to the allotment of time off for religious celebrations like Eid, he said. Eyestone said there can be conflicts with scheduling time off school for these types of holidays.

“We understand that we can’t accommodate every major religion’s every holiday inside a school calendar or, you know, no one would ever be in school,” Eyestone said. “However, we could look at the major religions that are represented in our district, what their most sacred holidays are, and we could build a calendar around them.”

Eyestone added that, because of the separation of church and state, he thinks it would be difficult to allot time off toward a specific religious celebration on the school calendar.

He said that arranging time off for these celebrations could be achieved by building them around professional development days, trimester transitions, and other natural breaks in the calendar.

“The consideration for us is not just about Eid,” Degner said. “We have to look in respect, to the best extent possible, people’s religion no matter what it may be. So, for us, that probably involves a larger conversation with other religious leaders in the community.”

Although current school guidelines allow students excused absence from school for religious celebrations, Kirja said that an excused absence withholds her from both embracing Eid celebrations while remaining fully caught up in school. In her petition, she wrote that scheduled time off from school during Eid could offer Muslim students the same break for celebration that students who celebrate Christmas experience.

“You’ve got to be inclusive because you don’t think as ‘me,’ you think as ‘we,'” Kirja said. “If it only benefits you, then what’s the point?”