‘I’m offended by that….’ was the startled response I got from a fellow teacher. I’d raised concern in a department meeting. A student had been coming to school with her face concealed behind a niqab. I said that children shouldn’t have their faces covered in school.
Eyebrows were raised. Lips were pursed.
The ‘discussion’ was over.
I couldn’t help a final retort… ‘Be offended, then. It will do you some good.’
Admittedly conceited – and childish – I was sincere. I wanted my colleague, with whom I normally had an excellent relationship, to ‘feel’ the sharp jab of offence and consider, really, what had spurned it. After all, pain is so often a precursor to change, or at least to reflection – I hoped.
It was October, and for a month, a new, 16-year-old Year 12 student of Bengali heritage had been coming to our east London school wearing niqab – an Islamic face covering. She was a new student. Nobody had ever seen her face. She just arrived wearing it. Nobody said anything. We prided ourselves at this school, a recently established free school in east London, on our reflective, progressive ethos. Yet as far as this student’s approach was concerned, any sense of reflection or progress was hard to find.
I raised my concerns. On a practical, safeguarding level alone, it was a worry. How could the school know the student was who they claimed to be? Sixth formers have branded uniforms and carry photo identity cards for a reason. Then, of course, there’s the ethical quagmire around the whole ‘covering of women’ issue.
‘Just get over it. It’s their culture,’ I was told by a colleague.
‘Whose culture, exactly? Niqabs are a Gulf tradition and about as Bengali as the didgeridoo. And we don’t have a problem policing “culture” when it comes to the fashion choices of other minorities’ – is what I would have responded, had the conversation been allowed.
Meanwhile, other students were starting to follow suit. A handful of girls – all of Bengali heritage – were now coming in to school in niqab. For some reason, it seemed to be fine for them to do so intermittently: some days a student in my Year 12 English Literature class would wear a niqab, other days she wouldn’t. On the days when she did, her height and voice were the only ways I could identify her. She was quiet and of average size, so I couldn’t be certain who she was on the days that she did come in covered. My go-to approach was by process of elimination via the class register, which didn’t seem satisfactory or safe.
Then the Muslim boys, in disobedience of the school dress code, started to come in to school in thobe – long gowns traditionally worn by Muslim men. The school’s management team buried their heads deeper in the sand. Apparently, Muslim students could bend the rules, while others would get detentions for wearing trainers or donning ‘sculpted’ haircuts.
Any time I brought up this Islamic exceptionalism, papers were shuffled, eyes were averted and excuses made. Being of part-Bengali heritage myself gave me a certain latitude to be franker than others, but the mostly white, middle class staff room – normally a cacophony of ‘decolonising the curriculum’, ‘white privilege’ and ‘women’s rights’ – was silent on this issue, even though it blatently involved privileging one group of students over the rest.
And we all know why.
For the same reason I have to write this article under a pseudonym. The same reason a Yorkshire teacher and his family are still in hiding after showing the wrong cartoons to his class. It is ‘Islamophobia’ in the literal sense: teachers and schools are scared of Islam. Batley Grammar, protests at the gates, online furore, death threats, Samuel Paty, being labelled by colleagues as ‘intolerant’, ‘racist’, ‘offensive’. Schools are terrified of doing the wrong thing – so we do nothing.
And the worst symptom of this fear? Silence. In order to counter the unresponsiveness of my colleagues, I contacted my Head and other senior management via email to outline my concerns. There was no reply. Eventually, when I encountered my Head in the staff room, he nervously agreed that the school needed to ‘have a conversation’ about these issues.
That was four years ago. Since then, the cultural stand-off has only become more entrenched. The Muslim students effectively wear what they want, leave lessons to pray when they want, separate themselves according to gender when they want. They excuse themselves – on cultural grounds – from assemblies celebrating ‘controversial’ topics such as Pride month. Classrooms are commandeered in break times as ‘safe spaces’ and ‘prayer rooms’, segregated by gender, ethnicity and religion.
The staff pat themselves on the back for their ‘tolerance’ while simultaneously wringing their hands when the same students express intolerance on issues such as women’s rights, homosexuality, censorship and evolution – which they often dismiss as being inappropriate, ‘Western colonial’ content. But still nobody wants to have a conversation about it. Or even to ask what kind of message we as a school send when one group of students is allowed to create its own dress codes, curate its own curriculum, crowbar its ideas on gender and sexuality into classrooms.
While there may be some merit to certain cultural accommodations, the fear and silence that surround the whole situation are the most worrying aspect of all. Teachers today cannot even talk about the repercussions of allowing one particular group to break the rules applicable to everyone else, for fear of causing ‘offence’. What hope do future generations have?
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