Journalist Lauren Booth recounts her experience as a Muslim mother in light of the recent closure of Islamic schools, niqab bans and media hysteria.
“I’m not wearing that!” My 12 year old daughter winces as we examine the bathing suit she must wear for swimming lessons at her private girls school in Manchester.
A whole section is cut away from rear ribs to the (very) lower spine. As for the front, well, the thighs of the suit are so high cut the overall effect is less year 8 swim club, than a Rihanna photo-shoot. It serves me right – for not sending my daughter to a Muslim secondary school.
Despite the negative press you may have read about (dread phrase) “Muslim Schools,” both my daughters and I have found the establishments near us to be welcoming, inspiring and (as a mum of teenage girls), with a dress code that is refreshingly modest. Our views, based on solid experience of local Muslim schools, are far from the media portrayal of the norm.
Just take a look at the headlines. In recent days, two Islamic schools have featured unfavourably. Al-Madinah in Derby, a new 4-16 Muslim Faith state school, opened just a year ago has been temporarily shut down after its first Ofsted report, closed the gates due to a “health and safety issue.”
At the same time one of the only other state Muslim schools in the country, Tauheedul Islam Girls’ High School has been criticised in the press for its dress code. Girls who attend Tauheedul Islam’s High are expected to wear a headscarf to school. And it is this uniform code which has incited negative coverage against this otherwise highly successful state, establishment.
Whilst the mainstream media were seeking a way to tarnish Tauheedul Islam’s excellent reputation, the school, quietly and at the same time, topped a league table of 3,000 UK state establishments.
Trinity Mirror’s data unit, backed by academics compiled the list seeking to give a “comprehensive” view of the quality of schools UK wide. The data focused on academic results, teaching quality, and – crucially – the behaviour and prospects of its pupils. Tauheedul ranked the best in ALL these departments.
It is a sign of the mainstream media’s political agenda that to date no daily paper has followed up this story with a positive request (as would usually be the case) for glossy interviews with faculty staff and headteachers.
Thus British readers of anything but a single newspaper are unaware that an Islamic School in Britain currently ranks as the best in the country according to the most recent and very comprehensive study, a school that also has the highest approval of parents, pupils, local government and policy makers in Whitehall. No mean feat in the current climate.
Bizarrely, when I speak to a newspaper department editor she insisted that: “That league table was from years ago. It’s not recent. It’s old. But I’ll check.
I call back sometime later and point out that the report was printed two days earlier and is new.
“Hmm, still can’t verify it” which is odd as the page is easily found via a way out new-fangled gizmo called Google. Why is she so reticent to repeat the findings? What she said next was both offensive and revealing: “We just don’t believe everything that head teacher tells you, Lauren, so make sure you check these things carefully.”
Hinting that a head teacher is massaging figures that have been released in a national daily independently of the school is a stunning insult. One I cannot imagine being made of any other head teacher of high standing. Or anything bar criminal standing for that matter.
In the end it took a personal interview, to accompany the article I wrote – recognising the legitimacy of Tauheedul’s great results, to push the Sunday Times to revisit the theme of modesty in school uniforms for girls.
Oh and my actual piece?In the end did not appear in the actual paper but only in the online edition and even then it is only available to subscribers. Meanwhile, my interview on girls modesty in schools being a positive was published in the corner of a page whose main story was “British imams willing to marry girls of 14 in secret.”
Schooling and Education
British papers want readers to fear the “spectre” of Islam. Yet, the argument for firm moral guidance and a sense of community, being central to schools is completely “on message” with current government thinking.
Michael Gove the Education Secretary has spoken clearly about the role of schools in effecting positive changes in students’ lives beyond the National Curriculum norms and well into the realms of social mentoring. He has insisted that schools have a major role to play in “promoting stability” in children’s lives.
“There’s nothing worse if you’re a child than not knowing when bedtime and meal time is, not knowing where mum and dad will be at a particular time,” he said.
“But if you are in a school that’s well run then people insist on discipline and timeliness and they insist that you are polite in the lunch queue and eat with your friends.
“And that discipline is evidence of someone really taking an interest in you; they care enough about you, enough to want you to be part of that community and part of that ordered life.”
During my research it became clear that newspaper editors are using the government’s agenda for “inclusiveness” to try to focus fury on this element in relation to Muslim schools. “After all Lauren, which non-Muslim girl will wear a headscarf?” asked the editor of an educational supplement.
Certainly inclusion for all who wish to enter a school is an important marker for the right of a faculty to receive state funding and must be observed.
It is not the right of local children to attend the best school whatever their faith I question here. After all Muslim children in the UK have gone to CofE schools and continue to do so. But if we are talking about fairness then let us look at the coverage another faith school received when it was found to have a clearly non inclusive policy.
Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Hackney is a state funded Jewish school. In a recent survey it was found that whilst 37.82% of local community children are amongst the poorest (in need of free school meals), this state school has a quotient of just 1.62% at this level of need, a clear example of selection by stealth – The media response to this scandal? Silence!
Meanwhile, the schools website states that: “Charedi homes do not have TV or other ‘inappropriate media,’ such as the internet. Families will also dress in accordance with the strictest standards of modesty.”
Now let’s hear what the media had to say about Tauheedul’s dress code and pupil expectations.
The Daily Mail, following the lead of the Sunday Times, wrote (Sept 29th 2013): “Pupils have to wear hijabs in and OUT of class for the first time at a state-backed school in Blackburn.
“The cover-up was ordered at the 800-pupil Tauheedul Islam Girls’ High School where students already have to dress in long purple tunics over black trousers to ensure flesh is not seen. Under the rules, pupils must ‘wear the hijab outside the school and home, recite the Koran at a least once a week’ and not have stationery which shows ‘unIslamic images’ like pictures of pop stars.”
Sounds terrifying right? Let’s break this down.
Pupils must wear hijab at school and home. The school dress code includes hijab, a legally acceptable requirement for a faith school. But no one at the school or on its literature makes the outlandish claim that they would somehow “police” girls once they leave school premises.
The school brochure merely states that it is a hope, an expectation that good school practise travels into the home environment. A far softer statement than that made by Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls School in Hackney which makes it clear that the homes its girls come from shun TV and the internet. A statement of certainty, not of expectation, regarding the way its pupils live outside school.
Tauheedul Islam’s Head teacher Mr Hamid Patel denies the accusations regarding what pupils wear outside school saying ‘This story is wrong. It is totally incorrect to say that pupils are ‘forced’ to wear hijab outside of school.” He added: “We are extremely sorry that despite repeated attempts by us to make sure the Sunday Times got their facts right, this newspaper chose to wilfully misrepresent our school.”
Meanwhile, British children are crying out for greater guidance and support. A report released this week reveals a 30 per cent rise in 10-14 year olds who self-harm. Let’s be clear what this means; a growing number of our teenagers are taking sharp objects and gouging their skin in an attempt to cut away psychological misery.
Young people in the UK are, the report finds, traumatised by a maelstrom of modern pressures. These are listed by the children’s organisations responsible for the report to include cyber bullying on social networking websites, “sexting” and sexual relationships. The director of campaigns at the Young Minds charity calls the emotional climate our children live in “unprecedentedly toxic” with ever younger children being affected.
There is no doubt that the pressures on girls to be “hot,” to wear ever skimpier clothes in order to impress hormonal boys (and male teachers), plays a large part in this environmental disaster. We, as parents, play our part, when we ignore or even endorse this sense that school must be cool, including the uniforms.
My girls and I accepted Islam as our religion three years ago. And after watching me change from a mother who drank alcohol to a parent at peace (and teetotal), and with their own growing understanding of the basic tenets of Islam (the essential one being that God is One) both Alex and Holly embraced, this lovely, clean living faith.
My 10 and 12 year old daughters have before (and particularly since) revealed a natural instinct – and a confidence – in their preference, towards covering themselves up in public. Walking down the high street yesterday, Alex noted the school girls with skirts hiked up mid-thigh. Instead of envying the girls physically she said: “The poor things, how horrid to feel you have to be half naked to impress boys.”
As the Northern drizzle pounds our car, Holly puts it more simply. “That looks stupid AND cold.” Sounds weird to our ears doesn’t it? Like our grandmothers speaking rather than modern adolescents. And that’s the point.
The strength of my daughters views on the subject of modesty. A theme of contention in homes, which causes parents either agony or outrage – has surprised me.
In a society where so much of ourselves is wrapped in how we are “packaged” or how much “beauty” we can create with modern hair and make-up products, children are increasingly the victims of a culture that creates female insecurity and sexual victimhood whilst dressing it up as freedom and liberation. But isn’t it us, and our weak institutions, who put them at risk first?
Instead of being repelled at the idea of modesty at girls schools, British parents should be welcoming a return to uniforms which, to be frank, are not so far off what we ourselves were forced to wear.
It is Islamic schools which are a part of a growing positive march towards greater sartorial modesty for girls at school. And they are far from alone. The grotesque pressure on young women to adopt the sexy schoolgirl look now a fashion staple from pop videos to men’s magazines has secondary and even primary head teachers making radical uniform amendments.
This summer, parents nationwide cringed at the case of Jeremy Forest and the 15 year old pupil he seduced. Now the school he taught in, Bishop Bell Church of England School, East Sussex, wants pupils to have the “highest standard” of appearance.
We aren’t talking a new school badge here we are talking about a ban on make-up for girls below school year 10 (ages 14 to 15). And further, a directive to parents from the school office read: “Figure-hugging tight, skinny-fitting styles are not acceptable. Trousers are required to be loose around the ankles without Lycra or similar.” Nail varnish, body piercings and most items of jewellery have also been deemed “not acceptable.”
Yet should a Muslim school outline such a dress code, there is an attempt to create a public and a political outcry.
Far from being outraged, a growing number of parents will agree that there are ethical, moral reasons for strict clothing rules for secondary school girls. Indeed skirt bans currently exist in 63 secondary schools nationwide. The overwhelming majority NOT Islamic.
When I was at Copthall Girls school, sometime in the last century, I remember being sent home by the Deputy Mrs Wilson for “not wearing a skirt but a PELMET Booth!”
In hindsight, how innocent our hitched skirts and batted (bare) eyelashes seem to the hyper sexy looks adopted by this generation. Aided and assisted not only by peer pressure but a weakened sense of social morality across the board in our society.
As for my daughters, the eldest has chosen to wear hijab to her non-Muslim secondary school, the faculty of which are very receptive to girls religious choices. Alex says the hijab makes her feel “clean and protected.”
My youngest, Holly, is keen to attend the Manchester Muslim High school and currently wears hijab at the Islamic Prep she attends – as part of the uniform. At the end of the day, back at home, they both take them off to do their homework changing into sweat pants and T shirts.
We are all delighted that no one outside the family will see their knobbly knees or any other part of their girlishness in the coming years and certainly NOT on school grounds where the institution has a duty to protect both their well-being.
This article orginally appeared on the “My bit for Change” website which we have linked to below.