Supporting Muslim students: British Muslims for Secular Democracy publishes new advice for schools

Britain is a proud multicultural, multifaith nation and one that I very much enjoy being part of as a Muslim woman. I’ve spent most of my years in education here and am now happily working in London. I also hope to educate my future children here and see them grow into confident British Muslims too.

Looking at the Muslim population across Britain today, as a community we’re in fact also growing in numbers. In England and Wales for example, 1 in 12 of school-age children are now Muslim. But how is this reflected in their identity? Well, out of this number, half are British-born and over three quarters self-identity as British.

Living in a diverse society, it’s a great positive to see that young Muslims are confident with their (often) mixed heritage and British civic identity. However, it’s also alarming for the quarter of children who do not class themselves as British. This makes me want to ask questions about the environments these children are living and studying in and the roles they feel they can play – as well as any prejudice or negative factors/influences which may be at play.

Within the educational sector specifically, concerns have in fact been raised over the treatment of Muslim students and their levels of achievement. Some of the issues at hand include low teacher expectations, racism, Islamophobia and high rates of student exclusion. The government on the other hand tends to disagree, claiming that whilst young Muslims fare worse in the job market, they tend to achieve higher results at school.

These are certainly complex issues requiring ongoing research. One of the areas of being addressed at present is how to best support Muslim students in education. With varying needs – and needs that teachers may not always understand how best to navigate – British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD) recently launched their new manual: “Advice for Schools: Brief guidance to support schools and parents in meeting the needs of young Muslim people”. Here’s what they had to say.

From LGBT education to evolution: How to address often “controversial” issues

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I recently attended the launch of the report and have read the issues at hand that BMSD is trying to provide such critical guidance on. I welcome the report for a number of reasons.

Firstly, we need to acknowledge the role and expertise of educational professionals and to respect the wider cohesive school environment. Secondly however, in doing so, we must not sideline the needs of Muslim pupils – needs which both Muslim and non-Muslim teachers and staff may not have the adequate knowledge of, guidance and support needed to manage these sensibilities. Lastly – and quite critically – we must also recognise that the Muslim community is not homogeneous. Beliefs, practices and (of course) cultural backgrounds are different and young Muslims must be not be inadvertently forced into one “set of minority Muslim beliefs” at the request of other parents or through a lack of knowledge on behalf of the schools provided by the Muslim community.

This respect for diversity is part of a wider imperative to offer a diverse tolerant curriculum, not solely relevant to a student’s Muslim identity but as part of preparing them for life in wider multicultural, multifaith Britain. And these are the main aims of the report: to provide educators with the knowledge to respect and meet the needs of Muslim students but not at the detriment of their wider secular education (and in turn wider Muslim identity).

For example, often controversial issues such as LGBT education, evolution and the role of arts are included in their recommendations. BMSD does this in a non-confrontational yet firm manner. It highlights the role of an inclusive education for everyone in which each and every child is helped to prepare for life in British society and also refers to the diverse history and practices within Islam, including queer history, Muslim musicians and Muslim scientists who work alongside the theory of evolution.

This a critical breath of fresh air which is so widely needed. The wishes of parents must be respected but cannot be used to monopolise the content of the educational syllabus. As a diverse nation, we should all visit other places of worship, we should all learn about other faiths, we should learn about the the risk of HIV/AIDS, healthy relationships and what abuse is, just as we should learn about diverse sexual communities across the UK.

This also includes acknowledging the existence of LGBT Muslims! This is the reality of Britain. What is their to fear? Quite frankly, nothing! We cannot cut off areas of knowledge and exposure. Tolerance and empowerment is developed through knowledge of oneself and others after all, without a shadow of a doubt. How else can we openly and objectively prepare children (both Muslim and non-Muslim) for the future ahead?

Hijab and sports: Age and gender appropriate policies

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Image: Rawpixel.com – Freepik.com

Where I do feel the report could however be clearer or broader is in their approach to veiling (the hijab). As a faith community, I believe there should less emphasis on religious dress and more on religious values and I do also agree that there should never be a policy of prescriptive veiling in schools. I would 100% welcome any chance of policy regarding this issue. Likewise, I believe that primary school children (and those who have not yet reached maturity) here in the UK should not wear a headscarf. However, I do not advocate for banning the scarf – nor does BMSD mention this in the guide.

Whilst there are varying interpretations and views on the role, need and requirement to wear hijab – as noted by BMSD and which I myself acknowledge, respect and believe should be (more) fully recognised – where I think that the handbook however lacks a stricter (more rights-fuelled) approach is in their response to girls (of adequate age) who do believe in and choose to wear the hijab (by choice).

The report must more firmly support those who wish to wear hijab in secondary school. This is the right of young Muslim women. Of course we must respect uniform policy, but I not believe that we should be leaning towards no hijab policies or discouraging the use of hijab (although this is not suggested).

In the report, BMSD is somewhat vague in their advice and I feel does not fully recognise the right to (and belief of those who deem it necessary) to wear hijab. It encourages quite rightly the coordination of hijab within the uniform colours but I believe places too much emphasis on the role of the school (who could reject scarves altogether – even though I doubt this would happen). Likewise, I would not refer to Christian and Jewish headcoverings as “largely obsolete”.

The report could also be stronger on the stance of single-sex changing rooms. I think it is only fair to demand “a must” for this provision rather than “every effort”. I cannot see (even in a secular context) how mixed changing rooms would be appropriate at this age – first of all at the very least in terms of safeguarding.

Likewise, trust needs to be built amongst Muslims and staff and I would be cautious to underplay the role/importance of Prevent. Open dialogue is important amongst all agencies and groups. We are all equal. Which is why I am also a little perplexed and concerned at the note of “the clash of rights” re. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism. I fail to see how any of these “clash”. We are all equal and dialogue should be open, tolerant and respectful, fighting against all of these prejudices on a singular “equality for all policy” which recognises and encourages diversity and the rights and needs of each community.

Moving forward: Dialogue, engagement and rationality

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We should not fear the role of religion – and indeed we must remember that this is not what secularism is about. We should indeed be careful on managing the balance between the role of the school and the rights of children (as opposed to the views of parents) and also respecting the rights of the individual (in this case Muslim youth).

In doing so, we must recognise young Muslims’ rights to free religious expression (e.g. through hijab) and the right to non-discrimination. Likewise, we must also recognise that schools are a public space where religion should be respected but not used and allowed to dictate the curriculum, potentially removing children’s exposure to key areas of knowledge and varied practices and beliefs.

With this in mind, whilst the advice is based on a secular basis, I welcome the large part of the advice but feel we should not risk confusing (ultra-)orthodox (often “mainstream” for lack of a better word) Islam with a more rational form of Islam – one which is often cited in the guide on several occasions through the diverse history of Islam with religious and historical groundings but not always recognised throughout. We should not leave room for either secular or religious bias and instead concentrate of the role of the school in terms of providing a well-rounded education in respect for all pupils and their needs, including those from a Muslim background.

I for one agree that the health of the child comes first in terms of fasting but would state that this is also an Islamic requirement to respect one’s health. A teacher would not simply be “putting the child’s heath first rather than religion” – itself a 100% given that must be stated and is – but in fact actually adhering to the nuanced, rational form of Islam that we should be encouraging. This may seem to be a matter of semantics but it is crucial in revealing how we as Muslims practice and approach our faith and in writing the narrative on faith, intellectualism and spirituality.

What this guide therefore critically points me to is therefore this: in Muslim circles we must have these wider discussions. We of course in our current state must advise schools – which is why this guide is so critical – but within the Muslim community itself we also need to question: why would a child be fasting whilst taking exams? Is this sensible? Why are (most) Muslim spaces not talking about LGBT Muslims (other than to exclude them)?

The issue at hand here therefore isn’t simply about managing Islam and faith (the needs of Muslim students) within schools – it’s about looking at rationality, liberalism and spirituality vs. orthodox Islam, current socio-cultural and theological practices and the way we approach faith today. It’s essentially about supporting, recognising, encouraging and building a more nuanced, tolerant practice of Islam.

I therefore believe the report addresses some important issues and will hopefully prove to be a useful tool within schools. I particularly welcome the emphasis on dialogue amongst schools and parents and focus on engagement with all parties, whilst at the same time enabling schools to have the confidence to lead on key issues such as evolution, LGBT education and fasting. Parents must engage with educators and schools must be open to the needs and wishes of parents and children. However, the State has a duty to these children – children of the future, a new generation of British Muslims – and must feel free to lead in line with the law and policies of equality, diversity and non-discrimination. And there is where the issue widens.

It’s 2018. Britain is diverse and that’s what makes me so proud to be British. We should all be working to empower and encourage children to be proud of their faith and to also help shape healthy, confident British citizens at the same time – in a space where both schools and parents can live harmoniously and both Muslim and non-Muslim communities can flourish. I therefore hope that on a wider level this manual can help open some form of dialogue around the issues at hand on both a community and national level.

In our communities we must open up the same conversations and address several ultra-orthodox trends featured in the guide – recognising that we need to examine these issues from within on both a theological and socio-cultural basis. In the same manner, these discussions will enable us to work together on a more harmonious national level as a diverse yet united nation where the dialogue stressed in this manual will be natural, mutual, open and respected by everyone. At the end of the day, we must work together as one nation and one wider community – both inside and outside the classroom.

To download a copy of “Advice for Schools: Brief guidance to support schools and parents in meeting the needs of young Muslim people”, click here

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