Debate and discussion: The best way to inclusion

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2004 - 8:59

Most secular liberal teachers would respect the right of students to express their religious beliefs. But the veil attracts particular discussion because of the signals it consciously and unconsciously sends: girls should cover their hair and faces.

A cross, a skull cap or a turban are outward signs of faith and carry their own cultural baggage, but children as young as eight and nine wearing clothing to deflect the attention of men is obscene - no child can be responsible for the attentions of sexual predators who would be interested in looking at a child in that way. We should absolutely support the right of these girls to choose not to wear such garments to school, whatever the wishes of their parents.

It is not the case, however, that all young girls wearing veils, headscarves or full coverings are doing so because their parents are forcing them to. Indeed, many families from the liberal Muslim communities were horrified that increasing numbers of their daughters chose to wear hijab after 11 September 2001 as an outward sign of solidarity with other Muslims.

Many of these girls see the decision to wear the veil as a sign of their growing maturity and their deep personal faith. Other girls enjoy the perceived freedom it gives them from the unwanted attention of their male classmates and wear it as an expression of a somewhat skewed feminism.

Other girls from Muslim families choose the veil for less ideological reasons - valuing the freedom it gives them to pursue their life outside the home with fewer constraints or suspicions.

As teachers who believe in the importance of comprehensive, secular state education for all, why should we defend the right of students to choose the veil for themselves and allow parents to choose to cover the heads of our primary school pupils?

Put simply, it is the greatest chance we have of ensuring that those children go to school within the state system. In France they already have the tradition of a Catholic religious education system running in parallel with their staunchly secular system. We have no such tradition in this country - instead we have a peculiarly hybrid system - and increasing numbers of parents from faith communities are seeking to educate their children outside this system, supported by our Prime Minister and his bizarre faith in faith schools.

We cannot claim that our state schools are pure bastions of reason and secularism - but we do believe that they are the best places we have for our young people to learn and grow. Banning students from expressing their faith creates a barrier to communication - and telling girls to "get that veil off" increases the chance that it will become to them a symbol of defiance and rebellion.

We need to be imaginative and inclusive in the way we treat our students and their developing belief systems. We need to continue to be the adults with whom they can discuss their concerns, explore other lifestyle choices, and be themselves.

All children need the chance to be with a wide peer group, to choose their own friends and interests, and none more so than those children who may live their home lives within a narrow set of boundaries.

Obviously, this does not only apply simply to Muslim families, but all communities where girls are expected to be subservient, or mixing with non-believers is not considered appropriate.

The wearing of the veil is not the only issue we have to tackle: every day in Britain, children are withdrawn from physical education, art, religious education, sex education lessons and assemblies. They are missing out on important features of a broad and balanced curriculum. Pressure of time and perhaps a reluctance to engage with parents on these issues have meant we have not always been creative in our responses.

A Christian Brethren child who is banned from using the computer is not banned from constructing flow charts or cutting and pasting stories to make them better.

A child whose parents demand that arms and legs are covered at all times does not need to be excluded from all physical exercise.

We have all heard teachers saying, albeit often in a well-meaning way, "I can't tell which girl is which under all those scarves." We need to make sure we do know them and that they know us.

We have to subtly challenge those beliefs that ask them to think less of themselves than they should, or prevent them from living the lives that they would choose. We need to accept that we may not see the fruits of these interventions whilst the child is at school, but know, as is the way with all the pastoral work we do, that it will be important at some time in the future.

And we need to continue to call for a secular education system and the dissolution of the bonds between state and religion.

But as we do so, we need to be aware that the people who will demand this alongside us, such as some evangelical Christians, will be calling for it for very different reasons… and that we need to ensure that all children are educated in a system that teaches the scientific account of the origins of the universe as science, and the religious creation myths as myths, where every child is ensured equality of opportunity and all the benefits of a liberal education.

Jane Astrid Devane, Leeds

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