A stiletto-clad stomp over western stereotypes

5th February 2010 at 00:00
Glam headteacher challenges perceived view of Arab education in new TV series

"I respect the religion, but not the hijab. Are you with me, girls?" Amal Hassan leans forward, her sequin-covered T-shirt catching the sunlight.

"No!" her headscarved pupils chorus in unison.

Mrs Hassan sighs. "I want them to be free from inside," she says, scarlet fingernails waving, eyelids drooping under the weight of false eyelashes.

"I want them to see how strong I am and how free in myself. To face all the problems of life, they have to be like this."

Mrs Hassan is headteacher of one of two Damascus schools profiled in Syrian School, a documentary series beginning next week. It aims to illustrate how education in the Arab world can differ from the western stereotype.

Some stereotypes, however, hold true. Strutting into a staff meeting in stiletto heels, hair a Dynasty-style helmet, eyes kohl-black, Mrs Hassan delivers a perfect example of Arabic linguistic flourish as she holds forth on staff clashes over timetabling.

"I can see our humanity vanishing into thin air," she tells the assembled teachers. "We no longer love each other or wish each other well."

Among Mrs Hassan's pupils are Du'aa, recently transferred from a religious Sharia school, and Sarah, who is desperate to be elected headgirl.

Meanwhile, across the city, Yusif attends a very different school. One of 2 million Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria after Saddam Hussein was deposed, Yusif and his family left Baghdad when his brother was murdered.

Yusif's school was built for 300 pupils; since the influx of refugees, it has catered for more than 500 boys. Overcrowded with victims of war and personal tragedy, the playground is a sweaty, sunbaked cauldron of simmering tempers.

"It's really difficult for the Iraqis," the head says, when Yusif and his friends are summoned to her office following a playground altercation. "After everything they've been through, you can't expect their nerves to be normal."

That evening, Yusif unwinds over computer games. "Life is real, but this is just a game," he says. "People die in this game, but in war they die and never come back." His voice is expressionless, his eyes fixed firmly on the computer screen.

Back at the girls' school, religious pupil Du'aa is gradually learning from her headteacher's short-skirted example. At her old school, she says, there was "a kind of repression".

"Here I can express myself better," she says. "Of course it's about finding a path between being a fanatic and being too free. You need to have a balance."

Not long after, Sarah is elected headgirl. Congratulating her new prefects, Mrs Hassan - in cyan fake-satin ruffles - lectures them on responsibility. "Tomorrow you will grow up, having learnt how to face the problems of wider society. All right, my girls?" she says. This time, they agree.

BBC4's Syrian School begins on Wednesday, February 10, at 9pm.



- More than a third of the Syrian population is of school age.

- Education is compulsory for boys and girls until the age of 15.

- All education is free, up to university level.

- Secondary enrolment stands at 72 per cent, with levels much lower in rural areas than in towns and cities.

- Some 82 per cent of the population is thought to be literate.

- Literacy levels among 15 to 24-year-olds stands at 92.5 per cent.

- 15.7 per cent of government expenditure goes to education.

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