'Hell is quite scary. There's fire and smoke. Trust me'

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
TV documentary follows fortunes of two pupils - one Asian, one white - in their first year at Islamic school

Seven-year-old Zara is issuing dire warnings about the dangers of damnation. "You mustn't go to hell because it's quite scary," she says. "There's all fire and smoke, and that's quite scary. Trust me."

Since September, Zara, whose hair is covered by the hijab in deference to hellfire, has been learning how to become a good Muslim at Nottingham Islamia School.

She is one of two pupils being followed by cameras during her first year at the Pounds 1,800-a-year school. The result is a documentary, "Muslim School", to be shown as part of the Channel 4 Revelations series.

The second girl featured in the documentary is 12-year-old Ayesha, the first white pupil to attend Islamia. She is the daughter of a Catholic convert from Grimsby. She chose to become Muslim to please her Pakistani stepfather.

It was Ayesha's mother who decided to send her daughter to an all-Muslim school. "If you think back to the 1930s and 1940s, when people were more religious, you didn't have as much crime," she says. "They all seem to have more values towards the family."

At primary school in Grimsby, Ayesha was bullied by girls who mocked her religion and called her Osama bin Laden. At Islamia, she has equal trouble fitting in.

"People are saying, 'You're Christian'," she says. "It doesn't matter whether I'm white or not - I'm not Christian."

When the school decides to tackle the problem, Ayesha's Islamic studies teacher writes "diversity" on the whiteboard. "Can anyone tell me what that means? Ayesha? Anybody? Any ideas?" The group of girls, in uniform black hijab, look around blankly in silence.

Later, Ayesha shows the cameras some pictures of her childhood, her red hair flying in the wind.

"I hardly ever show anyone my hair," she says. "That's why I'm always wearing my scarf around the house. I always used to get bullied about my hair."

Zara, meanwhile, is developing an equal fondness for the hijab. "My sister doesn't wear hijab, doesn't pray," she whispers confidentially. "It matters a lot. Trust me, it matters so much." Then: "Fire... woo-hahaha."

Zara's bareheaded mother is realistic about what a Muslim school can and cannot provide for her daughter. It offers a deeper grounding in Islam, she says, shoring up Zara's Muslim identity. But, she adds: "You're not a full person until you're able to mix with everybody."

Zara is more keen to talk about her mother's prospects for the afterlife. Kindness and honesty, she says, work in her favour: "But you just need to wear hijab. Just one thing, and then you'd be religious."

For both pupils, the school has provided identity, a place to belong. Following the school's antibullying intervention, Ayesha has made good friends for the first time.

"I do think I'll stay a Muslim," she tells the camera. "Other girls who are my age and not Muslim are just doing what they like. And I don't think I'd ever go there."

She returns to her Koran, a profound look of sadness on her face.

'Muslim School' is on Channel 4 on Sunday at 7pm.

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