Feature news stories on social trends and movements should avoid the temptation to start the article with an extreme. In what seems to be a continuation of the newest beat at The New York Times -- home schooling -- the story starts out with an interesting anecdote about American Muslims homeschoolers with what likely will become an unfortunate stereotype if it is not already:
LODI, Calif. -- Like dozens of other Pakistani-American girls here, Hajra Bibi stopped attending the local public school when she reached puberty, and began studying at home.
Her family wanted her to clean and cook for her male relatives, and had also worried that other American children would mock both her Muslim religion and her traditional clothes.
"Some men don't like it when you wear American clothes -- they don't think it is a good thing for girls," said Miss Bibi, 17, now studying at the 12th-grade level in this agricultural center some 70 miles east of San Francisco. "You have to be respectable."
Muslim homeschoolers out there can't be thrilled with this lead. Perhaps its fairly representative of the reasons American Muslims choose to school their children at home, or even the families the reporter talked to. But this type of imagery can become permanent in the public consciousness even after the reasons Muslims school their children at home change.
On the positive side, the story did a solid job of surveying the reasons Muslims choose to home school. What is somewhat amazing is that the reasons are not all that far off from the reasons many Christians in America choose to homeschool their children:
No matter what the faith, parents who make the choice are often inspired by a belief that public schools are havens for social ills like drugs and that they can do better with their children at home.
"I don't want the behavior," said Aya Ismael, a Muslim mother home-schooling four children near San Jose. "Little girls are walking around dressing like hoochies, cursing and swearing and showing disrespect toward their elders. In Islam we believe in respect and dignity and honor."
Still, the subject of home schooling is a contentious one in various Muslim communities, with opponents arguing that Muslim children are better off staying in the system and, if need be, fighting for their rights.
Here is a question that might be worth exploring as part of the home school/education/religion beat: are American public schools becoming more inhospitable to religious people in the United States? And is this a problem that local school boards should consider addressing? Consider the following example:
Hina Khan-Mukhtar decided to tutor her three sons at home and to send them to a small Muslim school cooperative established by some 15 Bay Area families for subjects like Arabic, science and carpentry. She made up her mind after visiting her oldest son's prospective public school kindergarten, where each pupil had assembled a scrapbook titled "Why I Like Pigs." Mrs. Khan-Mukhtar read with dismay what the children had written about the delicious taste of pork, barred by Islam. "I remembered at that age how important it was to fit in," she said.
Another thing that's interesting about this story is how it very easily could have just been an education or an immigration story. Instead it's a news/feature story that combines the immigration, education and religion issues into one generally solid story. In other words, religion isn't off in some religion-page ghetto.
The key is for reporters to avoid missing the religion aspects of stories like these. Please let us know if you find a story where they do.