Following months of bitter disputes over pro LGBT teaching in Birmingham, Muslim parents voiced their anger at local schools and the media at a public meeting last night.
The meeting was a local initiative led by concerned parents and activists to provide a platform for dialogue between the two opposing sides of the LGBT relationship education lessons row.
The controversial pro gay education lessons have so far been implemented in the Muslim majority Anderton Park Primary and Parkfield Community schools in Birmingham.
Mirfat Sulaiman, a local human rights activist, hosted the event. She told 5Pillars: “The aim of this meeting today is to bring the parents to a comfortable place where they would be able to tell their stories and express themselves because, so far, the media have not been representing them or their stories fairly. Any time the parents seek to talk to the media, it is used against them.”
The event attracted over one hundred people, mostly local parents who had children at either Parkfield or Anderton Park schools, but also in attendance were journalists, non-locals and members of the LGBT community.
The panel included four speakers: Rosina Afsar and Jay Hussain, two local parents involved in the Parkfield School standoff; Professor John Holmwood, author of the book “Countering extremism in British schools? The truth about the Trojan Horse Affair;” and Latifa Akay, a trustee at the LGBT friendly Inclusive Mosque Initiative.
Rosina Afsar explained the timeline of her dispute with Anderton Park School and how she felt the lack of clarity from the school over LGBT reading material left her no choice but to protest.
She is currently banned from the school as part of an injunction against protesters and she said her family have suffered since the row began.
“It has been extremely difficult for my family and me. My daughter was coming home and going into school every day crying because I couldn’t take her into her class,” she said.
Afsar also placed the blame for her family’s troubles on the mainstream media for “Islamophobic abuse” that followed, saying: “Throughout the fight for my child’s rights, I have been labelled a homophobe. I have received death threats and abuse by people who base their opinions on pure media speculation. I have had people post horrible stuff through my front door where my children live. I have been told to get out of this country, but this is my country.”
Jay Hussain was next to speak, a parent with a child at Parkfield Community School. Parkfield has introduced the controversial No Outsiders programme which seeks to “educate” children about gay relationships.
Hussain said the school had brushed off parents concerns during past consultations and had not attempted to address parents’ concerns. “Our questions were just brushed off,” he said, “by both Mr Andrew Moffat and Ms Hazel Pulley.”
Mr Moffat is the Deputy Head at Parkfield and the brainchild of No Outsiders. Mrs Pulley is the school’s Chief Executive Officer.
Hussain continued: “I asked: is it really necessary to teach these books in the way the school has? Why can’t it wait until Year 6 when our children can better understand? Pulley wasn’t happy with this and slammed the books down on the desk, saying the books are here to stay! I think she was unprofessional. She then stopped the meeting and asked all the parents to leave.”
After the speeches, the floor was opened up to the audience. One parent with a child at Parkfield School said: “The way us parents have been treated is like animals. Why? These are our children and we know what is best for our children.”
She explained how children had been negatively affected by the school’s handling of the dispute.
“Our children are now getting abused in school. They are getting blackmailed. The day I took my child out during the boycott, my daughter was told that if you don’t come to school on Monday then you won’t have any leisure time for the whole week, it will just be revision. My daughter gets panic attacks, and when she heard that she was really upset.”
The parent added: “We personally have nothing against LGBT but teaching children this in nursery and primary, they just need to let kids be kids.”
Latifa Akay was one of two speakers who wasn’t a parent involved in the LGBT lessons row. However, she was representing an organisation which works to support gay people who wish to identify themselves as Muslims.
During her speech, she admitted that she believed homophobia was being expressed by some parents at the protests. “Some parents claim that there is no homophobia, but I have seen leaflets that were circulating and there were some homophobic placards and again some comments from parents to the media.”
However, she also asserted her concern at the media’s unfair targeting of Muslims at the protests.
“It is sad to see homophobia of any sort anywhere,” Ms Akay said, “but what is also problematic is the way which Muslim communities are demonised in situations like this and the fact that there is homophobia everywhere but why has this homophobia reached the media in the way that it has?”
During the meeting, Ms Akay was challenged by members of the audience for her views on homosexuality in Islam.
“Do you and your organisation believe in the Quran in its entirety?” asked protest leader Shakeel Afsar. “And do you believe the Quran? The divine words of our Lord which must be accepted by all Muslims. And my second question is do you believe that homosexuality in Islam is a sin?”
Akay did not directly respond to the questions regarding Islam’s ruling on homosexuality, but she did say: “The beautiful thing about Islam is that there are many diverse expressions in Islam, but I am not here as a theologian.”
She later added: “Whether people want to believe it or not, there are LGBT Muslims across the world; I work with a lot of those people.”
Event organisers told 5Pillars that they were happy with the outcome of the meeting as it had opened dialogue and provided parents with a platform to express themselves.
Mirfat Sulaiman said: “I think it went good really. We had open discussions, many questions were asked and answered, and I hope I chaired it in a way that made everyone comfortable. I think it was educational for everyone who came.
“More meetings need to happen. We need to talk to each other as a Muslim community, and we need to talk to the wider community, connect with everybody, and we need to talk to the LGBT community, come together and try to resolve the issue. The government is not taking the initiative to tackle Islamophobia, and all the policies we see are Islamophobic. It won’t be solved soon; it is up to the community to deal with it.”
Several parents involved with the protests are facing lengthy court battles over an injunction banning them from entering school grounds.
The next case hearing is due to be held in October. The meeting organisers issued a call to attendees to contribute towards the financial costs of the court battle, which is expected to cost tens of thousands of pounds.