By Denise Veerapol
I fundamentally disagree with the AWL majority position on "the French ban", as it essentially argues that the religious views of Muslim parents should be respected and upheld in school irrespective of the oppression that they may be subjecting their daughters to. As a result, it also effectively supports the right of religious parents to intervene in the education of their daughters.
Last year I worked as a Learning Support Assistant in a school with a large percentage of Muslim children. Many of the girls were forced to wear headscarfs by parents who wanted their girls to be seen and treated differently from all other children, including Muslim boys. Not only were girls forced to wear headscarfs, but in accordance with their religious beliefs their parents insisted that they be pulled out of many areas of the curriculum.
For example, many Muslim fathers objected to their girls participating in PE, and so on the school sports day when all the children were outside taking part (including Muslim boys), the girls had to sit on their own in a stuffy classroom. I also saw letters from fathers who wished to have their daughters removed from sex education lessons, and so while all the other children learned how to take care of their bodies and about sexual reproduction, again, including Muslim boys, the girls had to sit out.
I saw many examples of parents insisting, as is their legal right in this country, that their daughters be excluded from areas of the curriculum. I would often talk to the girls about how they felt about this, and they were extremely distraught that their families would not allow them to participate fully in school life. As a result of this, the girls ended up as social outcasts and many children didn't want to talk to them or understand why they didn't do lessons like everyone else. I believe this is what treating Muslim girls differently amounts to. It shows support for the oppression of girls by religious parents and it makes it very difficult for girls to develop the skills and the confidence to break away from their parents' values should they want to.
I am currently training to be a teacher, and in a series of science lessons I was told that when teaching sex education you must always respect the religious and cultural views of the children's parents. Indeed, I was told that I must not contradict any information that the parents have told the children, even if this is incorrect. In this country a teacher has to legally ask for the parents' permission before they can teach sex education. My teacher informed us that many Muslim parents in particular withdraw their daughters from these lessons. I find the idea utterly repulsive that many Muslim girls are denied information about their own bodies. Indeed, I may well find myself in a situation where I am teaching the whole class about safe sex, hygiene and consent, with the exception of Muslim girls. This is what respecting religion in schools amount to - denying young women knowledge about science and about their bodies.
In contrast to these examples, I had a friend at secondary school, called Fatima who was of Moroccan descent. Fatima was from a very strict Muslim family and was forced to wear the headscarf and prevented from having much contact with other young people. Further, her father made it clear to her that in her mid-teens he would be arranging her marriage.
One day, in a swimming lesson Fatima told the teacher that her father did not want her to participate in PE and that she would not be able to do swimming due to her religious belief. The teacher angrily replied to Fatima that she was not prepared to accept that as a reason to be excluded from swimming. She made it very clear to Fatima that she would not treat her differently from any other child and that, if she wanted to continue coming to the school, Fatima had to participate fully in the curriculum. Fatima made the decision to participate without telling her father, and the event marked a turning point in her life. She had never before experienced anyone challenging her father or her parent's religious ideas. She had also never been treated as an equal to other British children.
The event had a major impact on Fatima's life and after this she realised that it was possible to challenge her parent's ideas. Indeed, that there was another world than that of Islam and her parents. After this point, she started to break away from them. She went to sex education classes and parties and had boyfriends.
In short, she did all the things that all the other young people at school were doing.
A couple of years later, when her father wanted to marry her off, Fatima had become much more independent and assertive, and she contacted social services asking them to put her into care so that she did not have to go through a forced marriage.
The point about Fatima is that she was able to find another world at school, a world away from her parents in which she could grow and develop and realise that she did not have to follow her parents' religious ideas. Ultimately, she was able to do this because the school refused to support her parent's religious beliefs and she was treated just the same as any other pupil in school.
Children must be allowed the space to break away from their parents if they need to. School provides the perfect opportunity to do this as children learn about the world, mix with lots of other people and come to realise that the world is a larger place than the four walls of the family home. This is particularly important for many Muslim girls who suffer severe oppression in family life. Accommodating religion in any form at school destroys such a space.
Many people have contributed to this debate talking about whether the veil should be banned, but the issue is not about whether you ban the veil but whether you support the right of Muslim girls to participate fully in school life away from the religious prejudices of their families. I believe that if you do, you can in no way support the AWL's majority position.