I am an English teacher working in a Catholic school in London. I am a Muslim woman: an obvious one, in that I observe the hijab (headscarf). Recently, I was asked to share some of my experiences with a Year 9 RE class. They were studying Islam as part of the curriculum, and here I was – a real live resource.
I was keen to run a Q&A with the students. Among the young people I encounter, there is clearly a growing difference between perception and reality with regards to Islam. Their perception of Islam is so far removed from the real teachings of the faith, that it is barely recognisable. It is vital that, as school communities, we teach our young people to question their news sources, their Facebook newsfeeds, tweets, and Snapchat stories. We should be teaching them how to question and be critical of the media.
I was nervous. I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had planned a brief introduction on some key ideas. I wanted to begin with the commonality of the three Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism. I also planned some additional information on the questions that I thought would come up.
A safe space to ask questions about the Muslim faith
Above all, I wanted to provide a safe space for students to ask questions freely with anonymity.
So armed with many, many Post-its, I conducted the introduction, and then the questions began to pour in. Students had the option to pass their Post-its to teachers if they wished to remain anonymous, or they could read out their own question. Word had travelled and we relocated into the hall, as there were now three or four classes who wanted to be part of the Q&A session.
How did it go? I think that the entire experience was an incredibly significant one for myself and the students, and maybe even the teachers involved. It made me realise that these students may not have been given this opportunity had I not been in that school. They asked questions I expected, but they also asked so many I did not. They were so curious and engaged. The whole thing changed perceptions, left the students more informed. It was liberating for all involved.
These opportunities need to be provided for our young people; they have to be able to ask questions and nurture their curiosities. They need to be critical of what they are exposed to in the media, rather than be passive consumers. I can think of no better place to feed, engage and nurture their curiosities other than the safe environment of their school. I urge every school to run something similar.
To give you an insight to the questions that might come up, here are some of the ones I was posed and my answers to them:
1. How do you pray five times per day when you are at school?
I pray before I come to school and I make up the prayers that I miss when the days are shorter, or I just pray when I get home. However, more and more places of work have prayer rooms available.
2. Why can’t you eat pork?
It is forbidden – which is the primary reason. There are other reasons that some people would give, too, but the primary reason is that it is forbidden.
3. Why do some women cover their hair and some women cover everything but their eyes?
This is to do with how the women have interpreted the directions. Some women don’t wear a headscarf either – so although it is prescribed to cover one’s hair and modesty, it is up to the individual whether or not they oblige.
4. How would men cover their modesty from women?
They would ensure that their navel to their knees was covered and dressed modestly – ie, loosely covered. It should not be too figure-hugging in that area.
5. Is there an equivalent of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the Quran?
The Quran is split into 30 episodes and has 114 chapters, each becoming shorter and shorter, and the longest chapter is at the start and the shortest at the end.
6. Are women treated like second-class citizens?
No, actually in many ways women were given rights in Islam before they were in Europe. For example, a woman does not have to take her husband’s surname when she gets married. A woman has the right to keep her income separate from her husband’s and he will still have to provide her with cooked food and sewn clothes. Her inheritance is hers unless she should choose to share it.
7. How do you feel about what Donald Trump has said about Muslims? And the idea of a complete ban on Muslims entering the US?
I think that it is an outrage and an insult to 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.
8. What does Islam say about terrorism?
This is what Islam says about terrorism and violence: “…Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind…”
9. If ‘jihad’ means such a good thing then why is it misused by terrorists?
The word “jihad” means a struggle or a fight. It can take many forms. My daily struggle to pray, or my struggle to fast during Ramadan. Terrorists are misusing this term because they are just that – terrorists. Terrorists have no religion. No world religion teaches you to kill innocent people. Their reasons are purely driven by their own agendas.
Anjum Peerbacos is an English teacher in London