Don't step on my religious sensibilities

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Can you tiptoe through the entire school day without causing offence? Victoria Neumark shows you the way

Your heart sinks as you look at young Jenny or Iqbal or Yakov and they announce: "Miss, I can't do that." They are telling you that what you have just planned for the whole class will have to be scuppered because it is alien to their religion and they can't join in.

But do you have to rewrite every such lesson plan? Here's a list - not exhaustive - of who's allowed to do what in school if you want to conform to religious norms. When in doubt, ask the school for its policy. And don't be scared to ask parents, making it clear you want to know more so that you do not go against their home practice. None of this is a reason to stop a planned activity, just pointers to awareness for you.

Assemblies and celebrations

Jehovah's Witnesses do not celebrate birthdays, Valentine's, Mother's or Father's Days, or other unbiblical celebrations such as Guy Fawkes or harvest festival. Even Christmas and Easter are not celebrated as they are pagan holidays, or fall at the same time as pagan celebrations. Festivals of other faiths, for example, Diwali, are equally proscribed since "we do not celebrate holidays that have non-Christian religious origins or those that promote nationalism". Do not expect Witnesses to join classmates'

birthday celebrations, attend firework displays or make Christmas cards that call for celebration (seasonal ones would be OK). Other faiths (Islam, Judaism) may have problems with material, such as Nativity plays, that assumes the divinity of Christ.


Brethren, (such as Plymouth or Exclusive), some communities within Islam and some orthodox Jews will have restrictions or bans on television within the home. These may or may not be extended to school. They probably will also apply to films.

Drama, dance and music

For many Muslims, these are to be approached with great caution. As well as possibly portraying forbidden behaviour (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, anyone?) they may involve immodesty in dress or movement. In many Islamic countries, dance is only for same-sex audiences. Music for some branches of Islam is limited only to percussion or religious chanting. Music is on the national curriculum up to age 14, so some discussion may be needed. Music was banned in Aghanistan under the Taliban and is not played in the religious parts of Pakistan. It is also limited in Saudi Arabia.


Universally approved of, but internet content needs checking: not just pornography but also rock music (particularly to evangelical Christians and Muslims). Coarse humour and anti-religious sentiments can be offensive to all faiths.


For many Muslims, representational art is forbidden. Geometric patterns and calligraphy are traditional Islamic decorative forms. However, there is, for example in Mughal India, a rich tradition of figurative Islamic art.

Orthodox Jews also refrain from making or looking on figurative art.

Some practitioners of these faiths are more relaxed than others, for instance, only refraining from depictions of the human form, or only refraining from making images. Others are so strict that they won't use textbooks with pictures of people in (this was until recently the case in Iran). look on


Jehovah's Witnesses and orthodox Jews believe that God created the world in six days. Many branches of Christianity, from Seventh Day Adventists to Baptists to evangelicals and a strong movement with the Church of England also believe that "creation science" is as strong a contender for understanding the world as Darwin's theory of evolution. It's very hard to find a serious scientist who agrees with them. Evolution is on the national curriculum, creationism, as science, is not. Officially, Islam does not believe in evolution as scientists do, but it's not a big issue for most Muslims as the argument about this is very technical, depending on Allah's constant intervention in affairs.

Roman Catholics, as well as reform Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Hindus however, do more or less endorse the theory.


Mixed-sex swimming can be a problem for Muslim students, even in primary school. Communal showers (even same sex) would be a no-no. Males should be covered from the navel to the knee; girls should have loose-fitting covering of body and limbs. Changing should be single-sex. However, some parents are keen for their children to learn to swim so they will be more flexible. Make sure before any lesson about policy and who is exempt from taking part.

Sex education

Parents do have the right to request that their children be withdrawn from sex education. Muslim parents, Seventh Day Adventists, strict Baptists and Brethren may well wish to exercise this right. Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists may have problems with descriptions of medical procedures and blood.

Contraception is still against the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, so promoting it may be objected to by some. Sexual topics are not viewed as suitable for public discussion, teachers particularly should be wary of off-colour humour, particularly in front of Muslims, but also evangelical Christians and many people from east Asia, who may lose a lot of respect for the teacher.


For both Muslims and orthodox Jews, menstruation implies ritual impurity and requires to be followed by a ritual bath for cleansing. Be careful of personal inquiries. If pupils object to sitting next to someone of the other gender, do not insist.

Physical contactmodesty

For many Muslims, cross-gender contact, even a handshake from teacher to student, is upsetting and potentially offensive. The closer to adulthood, the truer this is. For orthodox Jews, likewise, especially as adult women may be ritually impure (see above). For Japanese people it may also be worrying. It may seem polite to us Westerners to shake hands, but actually, it may be impolite in other cultures. The rule is, let the other person make the first move. Standing up when greeting someone and politely nodding is generally acceptable.

Cross-gender sports and drama (if these involve touching) are unlikely to be acceptable to these groups. Nor is the display of much flesh, either in published images or in class. Teachers, forget the belly tops if you want respect.

For many Buddhists, it is offensive to touch the top of the head or sit with feet pointing towards another, something to bear in mind in circle time.


Some forbidden items (not an exhaustive list): Islam: pork and pork products, lard, gelatin (this includes many sweets), products made with animal fats, alcohol and products with alcohol which includes Dijon mustard, for instance, seafood (fish are OK). Eating in Ramadan in the daytime is not allowed unless someone is ill or pregnant or very young

Judaism: pork and pork products, seafood, rabbit, meat and milk together, unspecified animal fats

Hinduism: beef and beef products (eg chips fried in beef fat), alcohol Seventh Day Adventists: red meat, alcohol

Catholicism: some devout Catholics won't eat meat on Fridays, or in Lent (the six weeks before Easter). Some will give up sweets for Lent, which also should be respected

Far East: many people from the Far East are lactose-intolerant (not religious, but cultural as well as physical). No dairy products.

First aid

It's advisable for first aid to be given if necessary, by members of the same gender just to be on the safe side. Hospital treatment requires parental consent.

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