The Comparative Religions course at Marymount of Santa Barbara is not exclusively a study of religions. Teacher Kate Burris’ class introduces middle school students to the cultures, traditions, socio-economics, geography, political histories and societal nuances that exist alongside 10 world religions in her curriculum.
Unlike many social situations in which discussing religion is considered taboo, students are encouraged to ask questions to gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter. The result is a more complete picture of the people and religions studied. Assumptions are revealed and challenged.
In a recent class, Marymount parent Rasha Khalid Al-Rawaf, who is from Saudi Arabia, works for Aramco and is pursuing a master’s degree at UCSB, came to speak. When she returns to Saudi Arabia, Al-Rawaf will be in charge of all educational programs for the children’s wing of a Saudi museum of culture that is under construction in Dhahran.
She is an attractive, engaging woman who put the children at ease and asked them not to be shy about asking questions. She started her presentation with a series of photographs of people taken in Saudi Arabia. The photos showed people involved in different activities. Al-Rawaf asked students to identify if what the students were seeing was the result of religious beliefs or culture. The students were surprised to discover that many of the things they associated with Islam were actually culturally dictated.
She then showed slides of Saudi Arabian women. Some of the women were dressed in traditional hijabs. Juxtaposed against these hijabs were tools of the women’s professions. The students enjoyed seeing the play of traditional against modern while trying to guess the professions of each woman. The photos were a great tool for showing the students that Muslim women in Saudi Arabia hold a variety of careers and skills.
During the question-and-answer period of the presentation, eigth-grade students asked about the tension between Shiites and Sunnis (and if she was a Sunni or a Shiite). They asked if she had been able to choose her husband. (Technically, Al-Rawaf had an arranged marriage, but she explained in great detail how her opinion, input and choice factored into the selection of her husband.) Students asked about the censoring of media and segregation of the sexes. One of the most dramatic lessons of the day occurred when Al-Rawaf, who came to speak to the class dressed in western clothes, pulled out her hijab and seamlessly put it on over her clothes. The transformation was significant for the students.
“My favorite part was that she was exactly like someone you see everywhere, but then when she put on her hijab and abayya, she turned into a totally different person,” one student wrote. “It was really cool that she looked the same, but totally different.”
The Islam section of the Comparative Religions course culminated in a visit to the Islamic Society of Santa Barbara in Goleta to observe Friday prayers. While there they met with Imam Yama Niazi to ask questions and gain insights into the Muslim faith.
Burris said the ensuing discussion was “an eye-opening, hour-long question and answer session that left both students and parents with new understandings of Islam and the challenges Muslims face in our community today.”
One student said: “[The visit] really exposed students to real Muslims’ ordinary lives instead of what the media says.”
Visits to five other places of worship punctuate the year as students study and deepen their understanding of different religions.
Marymount’s Kaledidoscope World Religion Program, which was developed in partnership with UCSB’s School of Religious Studies, has gained international recognition and added depth and diversity to the Marymount curriculum.
Marymount, which was founded as a Catholic school, became an independent school in 1971. Today, Marymount is known as a school with strong academics (two-thirds of students score 95 percent or higher on standardized tests) and is at the forefront of schools instilling values and leadership in a diverse group of students. The Ethics and Comparative Religion classes are among the courses that Marymount graduates claim made their Marymount educations exceptional.
— Molly Seguel is director of admissions for Marymount of Santa Barbara.