An Allah pendant worn by a Muslim woman

Manama: Deena walked into the main school building and was greeted by the secretary and the supervisor who flashed a big smile before shaking hands with her. She was sure their eyes had not missed the gold pendant in the shape of a crescent she was wearing, but she knew that the school policy did not ban religious symbols. She was grateful that her school, one of the largest in Bahrain, followed a policy that allowed for a high level of tolerance towards students and staff wearing discreet religious icons.

“This is a large private school with around 40 nationalities and various social, linguistic and religious backgrounds,” Deena said. “In fact, it is a mini United Nations and a genuine international community. Dealing with all the people here requires the adoption of a positive policy and its strict reinforcement. The board chose to be open about wearing religious icons but demanded that they be discreet, and it is working,” Deena, a Jordanian national, said.

She wore the crescent pendant to school for the first time last year. “I performed the pilgrimage for the first time two years ago and my mother offered me the pendant as a gift on the auspicious occasion. It has such a sentimental value that I have been wearing it ever since,” she said.

“Am I afraid that it could shock some people? The answer is simply negative because I am not offending anyone or targeting any other religion. I am not telling people — Hey, look. My religion is the best and yours is bad. I am a Muslim and I do not hide it. I do not discuss my religious beliefs with students and I do not advocate specific religious views. I do not use my class for religious indoctrination and I am as neutral as can be. Anyone can wear the symbols they like and I am not shocked. We are not like some Western countries that have imposed bans on religious symbols in schools and elsewhere,” she said.

Despite the open policy promoted by the school, students have opted not to wear symbols of their faith and preferred to blend in with their mates, putting obvious religious affiliations aside.

“Luckily they are not concerned with the problems plaguing the world in the name of religion and their focus has remained on studying, on building their character and having positive relationships with others,” Deena said. “I do not think that they are being encouraged by religious figures outside the school to wear specific clothes or symbols. However, you can obviously see some girls wear the hijab, the Islamic head scarf, or some boys wear the dastar, the Sikh turbans,” she said.

A few kilometres away, Lisa smiled as she eased onto the high chair behind the counter. She liked her new job in the fast food restaurant in Um Al Hasam in the suburbs of Manama. The place was welcoming and the customers were friendly and always ready to share jokes or comments. Her five colleagues accepted her readily. She felt she was blessed to be in a positive environment. She was also grateful that nobody objected to her wearing a necklace with a cross as a locket.

“I was raised in a religious family in the Philippines,” Lisa said. “Wearing the symbol of our faith was the rule, not the exception, and I was really worried that I would not be hired if I had a religious pendant. We hear so much about intolerance in the Middle East and I was honestly apprehensive when I got a job in Bahrain. Yet, when I came I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could be myself and did not have to hide my affiliation or identity,” she said.

Her first job was as a shoe saleswoman in a shop in Manama. “It did not last long because the shop was not doing really well. I then found a job in this fast food restaurant. It was run by a team of Turks and on the first three or four days, I left the cross pendant at home. I was afraid I would be fired for offending their feelings or those of the customers. However, when I wore it nobody said anything and I kept it. The Turkish management and colleagues are practicing Muslims and often perform prayers in the nearby mosque, but they never made any remarks about my pendant,” Lisa said.

For Adel Jasem, a government employee in his 50s, wearing discreet religious symbols should not be an issue in an open society that accommodates dozens of nationalities and several religions and sects.

“The official religion here is Islam, but there are so many other religious beliefs that are allowed without hindrance,” he said. “The only problem is when there is an excess, like when people put stickers on their cars or display large symbols. This is plain provocation and it should not be allowed because we do not have a war of religion or sects. People should act responsibly and not seek to impose their views on others by claiming they are saved and that all the others are wasted.”