In 2015 I took early retirement from primary school teaching after 22 years working at the same inner-London school. Moments, incidents and conversations with particular children remain hard-wired in my head. Like the one that involved Olima, a serious and determined Bangladeshi girl I taught when she was seven years old. I had taught one of her brothers earlier and later would teach other siblings. There were ten children in the family. Her parents dressed quite traditionally but none of the girls wore hijabs. They were absent on Eid but seemed relatively secular. One Friday afternoon, heading out to the playground, I noticed Olima on her own, frowning, and generally looking fed up. I asked her what the matter was, and she said:
“I wish I was a boy.”
“Why is that?” I asked?
Quick as a flash she said: “Cos it’s crap being a girl!”
We talked about it more, and she described situations at home, out and about, and at school, where she felt boys were advantaged or treated themselves and others as though they were superior. Now I was drawn to teaching, above all, to fight for equal opportunities. Before I trained as a teacher, in my early 30s, I worked in the voluntary sector for around 8 years, more than half of them at the Runnymede Trust – a research and information body challenging racism and discrimination. As their Publications Officer I saw through and promoted dozens of reports, resource materials, books and pamphlets. As more an more of these highlighted racism in schools and education I became convinced that the real fight for equality needed to be done face-to-face rather than mediated through the written word.
I taught Olima in my first few years of teaching, when I used much of my mental and physical energy working to establish a classroom that all children, of whichever gender, cultural group, or socio-economic background, felt that it completely belonged to them; where all felt valued, and everyone felt they could participate on equal terms. I paid special attention to those who were quiet, and seemed to lack confidence, to girls and those from visible minorities who knew that, out there, society doesn’t value or treat them equally.
There was absolutely nothing that I asked boys to do that was not open to girls too. I was committed also to the children’s voices, recognising that they often know better than their parents what they really feel and want. To the extent that it was possible I tried to make it a democratic classroom. And I made discussion of all manner of equalities part of my teaching regardless of whether it was “in the curriculum” or not.
That is the lens that I look through at the appeal court case which has just found against the Al-Hijrah school in Birmingham, who had a policy of educational apartheid – segregating boys and girls within this voluntary-aided co-educational state school when they reached year 5 (9-10 year olds). Girls and boys were taught in different classrooms, they had to use separate corridors and play areas, and attend different school clubs and go on different school trips.
The school’s spokespersons defended their practice as “separate but equal”. Take a moment to think of the different contexts where you have heard that phrase before, and you know it is invariably “separate and unequal”.
There was only one time we segregated pupils when I was teaching: during one of our series of sex education sessions where we provided a girls-only session with a female teacher, and a boys-only session with a male teacher, where particularly sensitive matters could be more freely discussed. We felt it really important that in other sex education sessions boys and girls were actually together learning about each other and what happens as they each go through puberty and through their adolescence.
Many anti racists will be tempted to see this case purely through the lens of Islamophobia and disregard or push to the far margins other equality issues it raises. I think they are wrong.
In the period of the mid-1990s when I was taught Olima, there were certainly racist attacks in the neighbourhood – her family suffered one. One reason there were few Bangladeshis at our school at that time was that they were chased off the nearest estates by racist gangs, and made extremely unwelcome by residents associations dominated by white racists. It took a while for the Bangladeshi community to establish itself in numbers. But the word “Islamophobia” did not figure then.
The right wing newspapers at the time, in time-honored divide and rule manner played minorities off against each other. They claimed to “admire” the moral values of Asian communities, especially Muslims. They concentrated more on attacking and undermining the Caribbean community. The Mail and the Express wrote nausea-inducing features urging Black youth to be more like their “hardworking” Asian counterparts who lived quiet “family and community oriented” lives.
That’s was then, this is now. The oppression and discrimination suffered by Caribbean youth has not receded, but a specific anti-Muslim racism has come obsessively to the fore on the mainstream right. The far right groups, though, have not forgotten the others they hate and despise, though sometimes it seems the anti-racist movement does.
Islamophobia and the colonial mindset was certainly present in an earlier instance where al-Hijrah school hit the headlines, condemned by OFSTED for not teaching “British Values”, which the last time I looked were more rooted in empire, slavery and racial superiority. The values of democracy and equality were born more in the communities around the world that resisted this oppression. Defending Muslim schools from that kind of attack does not mean endorsing their practices, especially when it is to the detriment of significant numbers of Muslims who happen to be female and children. if we are principled in our stand for equality for Muslim communities in the face of anti-Muslim racism (Islamophobia), then we will also stand with those oppressed within their own communities and fighting for equality. The fight against educational apartheid is right whether it occurs in Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any other schools and the judgement made it absolutely clear that schools from each community were now obliged to end educational apartheid.
And before anyone holds up the straw-person of “but there are other single sex schools in Britain”, I don’t approve of them either, but here we have one school, one institution, not single-sex, treating half of its school population differently.
I don’t know what Olima is doing now but I hope we are fighting for a world where we don’t let down the young Olimas of today by saying “yes, but the main thing is Islamophobia.” We can and must challenge racist oppression and sexist oppression together, and simultaneously, for the benefit of all who need equality in every aspect of their lives.