Muslim students lifted the veil on a stereotype

11th April 2008 at 01:00

I must be honest. Last year, I was a little apprehensive when I agreed to lecture at a city college's women's academy in Small Heath, Birmingham. I was concerned about how I would be perceived in an all- female centre where most students are from various Muslim communities in and around one of the most publicised areas of the city. After all, this is where there have been multiple arrests of allegedly potential terrorists.

Would the students - or I, for that matter - feel uncomfortable or uneasy, especially as, at the interview, I was told that they wear traditional clothing, headscarves, and one or two wear the hijab. Would this, I wondered, get in the way of effective teaching?

My first day was an eye-opener that shattered any misconceptions I might have had about Muslim female students.

For some reason, I had imagined the young women would be shy, reverential, deferential, docile. Perhaps I'm not alone in this thinking, because for many critics, like the commentator Melanie Phillips, a degree of cultural rigidity is implied by the burka and the veil.

There are even those on the Left who argue that Britain is "sleepwalking" its way into racial segregation", to quote Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission; or that national insecurity is at its highest and that Muslims need to safeguard their children from being brainwashed by radical clerics and fundamentalists who insist that women wear the headscarf, the burka or the veil (John Reed, the former Home Secretary, for example).

Because of this view, I thought I would have difficulty in engaging with the students and building a rapport. But, to my surprise, nothing could have been further from the truth. Instantly, I found that the young women were like all other students in schools and colleges up and down the country.

Of course, this will sound patronising, but then we are influenced by the atmosphere in which we live, an atmosphere governed by unfair representations and prejudice.

Yes, one or two were on the quiet side and fitted my stereotype of young Muslim women, but most were confident and outspoken. The very fact that they were gaining an education that they missed out on at school - for whatever reason - is evidence of their desire to do well in the wider British community.

Some students were polite and correct; some weren't. They were even softly critical of certain aspects of Islam and certain clerics who, to them, were more political than religious. At no point were the discussions bland or lacking differing points of view.

I was nervous about getting the students involved with contentious issues, and so kept them in a political and cultural comfort zone by debating standard - although perhaps uninspiring - subjects such as whether corporal punishment should be reintroduced in schools, and the values of national service.

Within a few sessions, I had gained sufficient rapport to tackle current topics, such as what it means to be British. I was aware that this might mean treading a very fine line, and that perhaps they might be a little more self-conscious about saying what they felt. But they talked freely and candidly about life as young British students, about the complexities of being Muslims (and the kind of Muslims they were), as well as their notions of Britishness.

They believed in Allah, so they were Muslims. They lived in this country, so they were British. And they loved Britain. As for my being a man, it was a non-issue.

If my students are anything to go by, young Muslim women do not want to be segregated from mainstream society.

Roshan Doug, English lecturer in Birmingham.

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