Saturday, 20 December 2014

Interfaith Education - Esha Chaman on Diwali and Christmas


The following is a piece by one my dear, dear friends Esha Chaman who, as well as being my university housemate both in Leicester and Italy, was also kind enough to give me my first taste of an interfaith event by inviting me to her own away-from-home Diwali party one year. Here she shares her reflections of interfaith events at school and how Diwali and Christmas have shaped her perspective on interfaith and inclusion:





One of my earliest memories of school is when I was five years-old and, at my teachers request, I had to stand in front of my classmates, clutching a purple and turquoise Pocahontas lunch box which my parents had given me the night before as a Diwali present. As I stood awkwardly before the eager-eyed group gathered in front of me, my teacher asked me questions about how I had celebrated Diwali with my family, in attempt to incite some enthusiasm. I replied casually but was secretly thinking about how much I wanted to prise open my new lunchbox.

In retrospect this was the beginning of my interfaith education in both my primary and secondary education, recognising and celebrating other faiths and religious festivals which were normally outside the school curriculum. Though at the time my interest in informing my peers of the glittering delights of Diwali and Rama’s gallant rescue of Sita was outweighed by the juvenile excitement of my new present, being encouraged to do so was an act of interfaith inclusion of non-Christian festivals.

Thankfully interfaith interaction and inclusion were not only students nervously standing before their peers and mumbling being encouraged to share vague information about their religious festivals. It mostly took a pro-active form in cooking and sharing traditional treats on the school premises, creating decorations for events such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Easter and Eid Al-Fitr, donating food to homeless shelters for Harvester, and partaking in theatrical productions of the Nativity play. 
One of the biggest events of the school year was International Day; an after-school festival celebrating the plurality of ethnicities and cultural diversity of the student population through dance, feasting, music, and shaky attempts of swirling Henna patterns on many hands which occasionally fell under my responsibility.

As both my West London-based primary and secondary schools were populated with a diverse mix of students of various ethnic origins and nationalities, interfaith inclusion was integral for showing respect towards everyone’s cultural and religious heritage. A conscious effort to recognise other religious and cultural events such as St George’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Hanukkah, Vasaki and Thanksgiving would be marked by morning assemblies and the school kitchen rustling up themed feasts for the school lunch. The importance of encouraging interfaith interaction within schools at a young age lessens the risk of marginalising non-Christian students, and dissolves barriers that threaten to create segregating binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’. 
If Britain wants to boast about its triumphant multi-cultural society, the practice of interfaith inclusion outside of Religious Studies within British schools and recognising non-Christian religious festivals is one of the solutions to encourage a cohesive awareness and understanding of the diversity that surround us. Taking into consideration an endless list of extremist groups worldwide who disparagingly dismiss interfaith inclusion through their sheer tyranny, it has become more important than ever for different religious and humanistic communities to converge and integrate with each other in the face of such adversaries.

The legacy of traversing across religious and cultural borders at school has become a normality in my adulthood. And for me in particular the celebration of Christmas is a testament to this. Despite not being a Christian it is normal for me to celebrate Christmas as much as it is to celebrate Diwali. And this is due to the inclusion of the festival I had experienced at school, as well as my own family’s willingness to partake in the festivities and permitting me to do so. Though some people have sneered at this and questioned my eligibility to celebrate Christmas as a non-Christian, the fact is that Christmas in Britain has increasingly become an inclusive and secular event. Also, who could resist the infectious merriment and prospect of gorging on everything from cheese to mince pies? 
 At school the excitement of Christmas parties and the daily distribution of cards never eclipsed the religious significance of the event. Partaking in the Nativity Play and daily carolling were amongst many other ways of recognising the religious story of Christmas, as well as embracing the British celebratory traditions. My own participation in celebrating Christmas has inspired me to encourage interfaith integration in my celebrations of Diwali as an adult. In my last year at university, unable to join my family back in London, I hosted a Diwali party and spent it with my friends, most of whom were non-Hindu. And last year I invited a friend of mine to join me and my family for our annual Diwali celebrations.

My education gave me an everlasting understanding of interfaith inclusion and awareness of different faiths and cultures, which is integral to British society today where differences often take precedence of being pointed out rather than the similarities. The same celebratory principles of gathering with family and friends, sharing, feasting, giving in both a charitable sense as well as presents and jubilation are central to all major religious festivals. Therefore why should we be reluctant to participate in some way, however grand or minuscule the gesture may be? We should be encouraged to listen, learn and participate just as my peers were when I was five, and projects such as Interfaith Ramadan provide much-needed space for this dialogue and practice to take place.


Esha Chaman lives in London, and works freelance as an operator at Al-Jazeera and voluntary contributor for Words of Colour and The Culture Trip. She is a feminist, egalitarian, and culture and travel enthusiast, interested in social politics and international relations. Recent article: A Walk Around Bologna - The Best of Local Culture.

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