No single voice from Asian girls

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Nadene Ghouri reports on the Muslim, Sikh and Hindu girls who reveal the pitfalls of generalising about ethnic minorities.

Muslim girls want separate religious schools, Sikh girls favour integration. Muslims and Sikhs would like school uniforms to conform to religious dress codes, Hindus would not. Hindu and Sikh girls think sex education is a good idea, but Muslim girls believe it can lead to promiscuity.

The divergent views on education held by different Asian faith groups have been highlighted by research carried out by Dr Harkirtan Singh-Raud of Liverpool John Moores University.

Dr Singh-Raud says that Asian is "too wide" a term to use when referring to pupils of Hindu, Muslim or Sikh background, and he argues that schools must make a bigger effort to understand different attitudes.

Dr Singh-Raud conducted a small-scale study, interviewing nine Asian girls, aged 14 to 18 - three from each religion. But he claims that it broke new ground because previous studies of Asians' attitudes towards education have generally focused on a specific sub-group.

Dr Singh-Raud acknowledges that the girls all had individual aspirations and attitudes and that religion was only one of the factors that helped to shape their views.

The only push for separate religious schools came from the Muslim girls because Muslims fear the influence of Christianity on their children, but the Sikh girls felt that if segregated religious schools were the norm, society would become deeply ignorant of other people's beliefs.

Two of the Muslim girls said that they felt "uncomfortable" working in the presence of boys. But the Hindu and Sikh girls were quite vociferous in their support for co-educational schools.

Harila, a Hindu girl, said of single-sex schools: "You wouldn't be preparing yourself for the whole world around you. Single-sex schools would only prepare you for what girls are like."

Only one Asian language, Urdu, was taught in two of the three schools attended by the interviewees. The Sikh girls wanted Punjabi to be taught regardless of the number of Punjabi-speaking pupils.

Sukhbir said: "Even if one person wants to do it, they should still teach the mother tongue." She complained that many pupils would have opted for Punjabi at her school but the language offered was French, which was taken by only a few pupils.

Harila felt that other pupils might like to learn Asian languages: "One of my friends wants to learn Hindi, though she's not my colour. If people want it, then give it to them."

When it came to religious education, the Sikh girls were particularly unhappy. One, Sukhdeep, said: "If they can't teach us our language properly, then religious education should at least cover our religion properly."

The Hindus were also dissatisified with the relative neglect of their religion. One said: "Hinduism is the shortest piece of the RE courseI I don't think that's fair, but then I don't think RE should be compulsory anyway. "

Ironically, two of the Muslim girls were happy with the amount of Islamic teaching. As Mumtaz put it: "If you taught too much, you'd get people mad. "

The girls were most divided over sex education. The Hindus and Sikhs thought it was particularly important "to know what goes on and how to take precautions" due to the lack of openness at home. The Muslims wanted to opt out of sex education, referring to it as "dangerous", "trouble" and "sometimes over the line".

All the girls thought school uniform should be worn up to the age of 16 as it gave a sense of belonging and that influenced their behaviour for the better.

They felt that they gained more respect from teachers and were compelled to behave better outside school when in uniform. Mumtaz felt that uniform encouraged "student fraternity". She explained: "Instead of saying I'm a Muslim or I'm a Sikh, it just breaks down all the barriers".

Both Muslims and Sikhs wanted uniforms to be more flexible in terms of keeping legs covered. However, Hinduism is not so strict about showing the body, hence the comment from one of the Hindu girls: "God gave me legs, why should I hide them?" When it came to school meals the girls were at last unanimous - Asian food should be on the menu. As Meena, a Muslim, said: "I can't see why we should have only British food. Asian food is nice and even some of my British friends like it. When chicken curry is made in school they all have some. We can't because it's not halal."

In some schools halal meat, often beef, was served as the only Asian option, which angered the Hindu and Sikh girls who are not allowed to eat beef.

Sukhdeep, a Sikh, said that schools should either provide both halal and non-halal Asian food - or should serve only British meals. Because of the present unsatisfactory menus several of the girls chose not to eat school meals at all.

The girls were also united over the need for more Asian teachers, more teaching of Asian culture, Asian assemblies, celebration of Asian festivals and more Asian books in school libraries.

Meena, a Muslim, explained why she wanted a Muslim teacher: "They understand you. They know what kind of problems you have at home and what you are allowed to do and not do."

"Educating Sita: The Education of British Asian Girls" by Harkirtan Singh-Raud, senior lecturer in education, Liverpool John Moores University

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