You should listen to Radio 4’s Inside a Muslim School . It’s rather horrible.
It’s about a very small school in Blackburn, mostly girls with a few boys in the primary grades. The headteacher (who is a man) explains the dress code:
According to the Islamic principle, women should not show their hair. So if the hair is not covered properly, then we will ask them to do so. That’s why they have to wear scarves.
And outdoors, ‘veils’ as well, we find out later – although a lot of girls don’t. But right off the bat they get this nasty, creepy, prying, domineering, bordering on prurient stuff of a Boss Man telling little girls that their nasty dangerous hair is showing, and to cover it ‘properly’. I don’t think that’s good for the way they think about themselves.
We hear a recitation in Arabic, and a lesson in which a teacher tells the students what the Koran thinks of homosexuality (it’s against it), and a teacher telling the credulous reporter that of course the students are taught to ‘question’ everything. Oh yes? Such as why anyone should care what the Koran thinks of homosexuality, or why the headteacher has nothing better to do than tell young girls he can see their hair?
The head says something interesting:
The only restriction is that, because of the Islamic principle, I can’t be very open with my female staff, like you would in any other school.
Oh is that all. The only restriction – as if that’s a small thing. As if it’s a minor point, that relations between adults who work together should be so warped and impoverished by ‘the Islamic principle’ – or what it’s taken to be. As if the free unafraid between-equals open interaction between adults were not one of the best aspects of modern life.
Mind you, he does at least notice it, and think of it as a restriction. But the school is all about restriction – that seems to be the point. There’s more to Islam than that, but you’d never know it.
The credulous reporter does point out that the school is not well-equipped, that there is no science lab and that ‘the school regards music as unIslamic’ (another pretty, enriching thought). And there’s a very interesting bit where she talks to a girl who left and went to a state school to do A-levels. She did not like al-Islah, and she loved the state school. But al-Islah was a friendly place, wasn’t it, the reporter urges – warm, safe? Safe, yeh, the girl said – and you could hear the thought ‘safe and suffocating, safe like a shroud’. But she didn’t like it, no. She wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
And one can easily tell why, throughout the show. It’s that creepy note of suspicion, of over-supervision, of surveillance as Lucy Snowe disdainfully calls it in Villette, of coercion and overprotection, of more concern with ‘Islamic principle’ than with intellect.
Another girl says they were taught they were Muslim first, and she doesn’t want to be taught that. ‘I’m a human first,’ she says – and one wants to cheer, and give her a full scholarship to Cambridge. Her mother is Muslim, but she never taught her they were Muslims first.
That’s the problem* with ‘faith schools,’ isn’t it: that’s what they teach. The credulous reporter keeps using the maddening phrase, too – ‘faith school’ this and ‘faith school’ that. She also refers to state school as a place where there are people of all different faiths. Period. As if there were no people of zero ‘faiths’ in the UK. I thought it was only in the US that people assumed that, but apparently not.
*Well, one of the problems.