(A Guest post from Haifa Algabri An Oakland graduate who was born in Yemen and raised in West Oakland an unapologetically Muslim woman who speaks her truth. An aspiring physician at Mills College double majoring in Biopsychology and Public Health and Health Equity. Her goal in life is to be of service to every community she is part of and the world as a whole, to uplift women’s voices, and to inspire change in people as she has been inspired. The picture shown is not her.)
I came back to Oakland 8th grade year and enrolled at West Oakland Middle School, WOMS for short. We were given a form to fill out, where we ranked the high schools we want to attend. I heard many people praise Oakland Technical High School for being good in education, and I loved the campus. At the time I thought it was my best match, which is why I ranked it as number 1. On the contrary, I heard several false rumors that turned me away from McClymonds High School, the only high school in West Oakland, and the only one that did me right.
I was really happy when I received a letter in the mail from Tech entailing all of the details for orientation day. I don’t remember much from orientation, but I was just excited to start high school. My first day I was pretty much lost and one of the teachers offered to help me. I came to school too early and we met up with the school’s principal Staci Ross-Morrison. He introduced me to her, but I felt an uneasy vibe from her as I shook her hand.
You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Between your Faith and School- At Tech you Did
All was good until P.E class, where I was told that I had to swim and that only medical reasons are accepted if one can’t. Due to cultural and religious reasons I can not swim alongside men. I approached my coaches and they weren’t happy when I explained my situation. They said, “You’re not the first to say you can’t and usually when the parents hear their kids will get an F they will understand.” I repeated myself, I can’t swim with men. There was a male student beside me as I said it and one of the coaches told me “You’re beside him and in class you are by men too, and it’s not against your religion to wear swimsuits, you only need to cover your skin.”
I wish my 9th-grade self-had the fire I have in me now to let her know she will not tell me what my faith is. Sitting next to a guy in a classroom is not the same as swimming with a man. Furthermore, swimming isn’t the only thing that goes on between female and male students when they’re in the swimming pool. I didn’t want to subject myself to that.
“Just Another Problem” for the School
My father came to speak with the principal Staci Ross-Morrison Thursday. After that meeting, I never enrolled back. I only attended Oakland Technical High School for three days and after her refusing to hear me out I understood why I felt unwelcomed when I shook her hand. I was just another problem for her and when my father said you’re not the only high school in Oakland she didn’t fight for me to stay. I felt like just a number then, and moreover, I felt defeat as I walked out knowing I can never come back. I wasn’t going to have an F on my transcript for P.E and I wouldn’t have graduated if I didn’t get two years of P.E in.
My mother tried to enroll me to American Indian, but I refused. My neighbor Fatima whom I went to WOM’s with attended McClymonds. I explained to her family why I left Tech and they said at Mack that’s not how they treat Yemeni/Muslim women. I didn’t want to go to McClymonds, because of all the rumors I heard about it. I was so angry I began to cry, but I ended up enrolling there. My peers from middle school saw me and said “ I thought you went to Tech”, I just said long story.
A Wound that Still Stung
I still wasn’t over what made me have to leave Tech, which was an institution trying to make me assimilate to their beliefs just to say every student at Tech learns how to swim. My middle school English teacher Joya Brandon introduced me to Tania Kappner. While at Mack, I was still working to get back to Tech. I was trying to change the OUSD policy where every student has to swim if a swimming pool is in a school. At least that’s the policy I was tricked to believe. When I told Staci Mack has a swimming pool, but we’re not told that policy she said, “Their swimming pool is closed, it’s not open and that’s why.”
Tania and I did all of the meetings behind closed doors because she said that’s how you get to Tech. They don’t want any bad publicity and if they don’t act we threaten to make it public. Tania fought alongside me, but they didn’t cooperate.
A freshman in college now I have seen that it’s been quite a culture in OUSD, where I am told the whole world does not need to know or to brush the problems under the rug. Yes, the whole world doesn’t need to know, but that’s when things begin to change, therefore the whole world will know.
The Love and Support from Teachers and Peers at McClymonds
My friend Rasha was an 8th grader at the time and she was working on the issue with me. Tech told us they’re going to change how they have been treating the Yemeni women, but they didn’t. Towards the end of my freshman year at Mack, I didn’t want to leave. I am so grateful that I didn’t, because the love and support I received from my peers and teachers there are unparalleled. I met people I don’t know what my life would’ve been like without.
Came my sophomore year and the swimming pool opened. I was told it was an OUSD policy to swim when it does open, but they didn’t force me or other Yemeni girls to do so. They followed what I remembered reading on all applications, we will not discriminate people on the basis of their race, gender or religion. Something I thought Tech followed.
One of my friends stayed at Tech and failed P.E because she refused to swim. She ended up transferring to Mack. Many of the Yemeni girls heard of how Tech treated me and how Mack welcomed me. They refused to attend Tech because one of their community members was disrespected and had they went they would’ve been disrespected too. To this day, Yemeni/Muslim girls are still being told that they still have to comply with what is not an OUSD policy, but a Tech policy.
And it needs to change.