Wednesday, February 21, 2007 


In the foreword to the Muslim Council of Britain's report aimed at helping schools in guidance towards meeting the needs of Muslim pupils (PDF), the third paragraph contains the following sentences:

We are convinced that with a reasonable degree of mutual understanding and goodwill, even more progress can be made in responding positively to the educational aspirations and concerns of Muslim pupils and their parents. The current climate, in which there is much negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims requires that this be given greater priority and impetus to ensure that Muslim pupils are appropriately accommodated for and become an integral part of mainstream school life and thereby of society as a whole.

They've clearly then got good intentions, whether you agree with some of their recommendations, which I certainly don't. What they are not doing is suggesting that this is how schools must be run, or as the Express website puts it, MUSLIMS: 'BAN' UN-ISLAMIC SCHOOLS.

Five Chinese Crackers has already gone through the report and destroyed most of the Express's suppositions, so I won't bother doing that. What I will suggest is that having flicked through most of the MCB guidance, it's apparent that they haven't learned to stop addressing Muslims as if they are all one homogeneous block. The MCB's recommendations on modesty in school uniforms, especially when it comes to suggesting that girls should be covered except for their faces and hands, when the concept of "hijab" is one that is a source of much controversy within the community, could well do more harm than good, and cause schools to expect that girls must wear such coverings. The features of good practice summary is a little more lenient in this regard, which says:

Muslim girls who choose to wear the headscarf during all school lessons and activities are permitted to do so, including during physical education.

Making clear the choice factor would have made for a better piece of guidance to begin with.

The section on prayer is similar in this regard. I attended a bog standard middle and secondary school in an area of high diversity, and had a number of good Muslim friends who did and continue to attend mosque. Never once though did I see them perform the Zuhr prayer which the MCB guidance suggests schools should make allowance for. They may well have done this silently to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and without bowing and prostrating, but it wasn't something they ever suggested that they had to instead of anything else. It's quite right that schools should be prepared for students who do wish to pray in this manner, but the MCB could be more nuanced in suggesting that not all Muslims do perform 5 prayers a day. This doesn't make them bad Muslims, simply that they don't feel the need. There's this as well:

After visiting the toilet, Muslims are required to wash their private parts with water to meet cleanliness requirements, hence pupils will need to use water cans or bottles that are easily accessible from a storage space in or near the washing area.

At school everyone's embarrassed enough about their "private parts" without drawing attention to themselves by washing them to meet cleanliness requirements. If the MCB genuinely believes that Muslims do this at all when at school, they need their collective heads testing. Again, the features of good practice section is more nuanced than the advice is:

School makes arrangements for their Muslim pupils who wish to perform daily prayers in school.

School makes arrangements to allow Muslim children who wish to perform their Friday congregational prayer on school site, led by an older pupil, teacher or external visitor.

Why not make it clear that not all Muslim pupils are going to perform the above in the actual advice? It's a simple enough thing, surely?

Amusingly, the report may bring to an end the practice of those of a Muslim background getting out of PE by suggesting that it's Ramadan. Friends of mine did this numerous times, when we all knew it wasn't Ramadan, but the teachers were none the wiser.

Physical Education
The majority of pupils who are fasting are able to take part in most physical activities during Ramadan without putting themselves at risk or in danger. Fasting may make some children feel tired or drowsy, or even develop headaches due to dehydration. This may necessitate some
Muslim pupils having to reduce their physical exercise. Schools may wish to consider and plan less strenuous activities in physical education lessons during Ramadan.

It's probably the guidelines on swimming that will raise the most eyebrows:

Schools should make every effort to provide a single-sex environment for swimming and allow Muslim children to wear swimwear that complies with the requirements of modesty and decency according to the teachings of Islam. Some schools have been able to meet these requirements in providing an appropriate single-gender environment and also allowing girls to wear full leotards and leggings in the pool. Provided these guidelines are adhered to, there should be no reason why Muslim children should be withdrawn from swimming lessons.

If schools are unable to make arrangements for a single-sex environment for swimming, then Muslim pupils should have the option to be excused from swimming on religious grounds. Parents should be encouraged to take advantage of single-sex arrangements that some swimming pools offer outside school hours, where their children can go and learn to swim.

Again, I don't recall any problems in my own experience when it came to swimming classes. They were always mixed-gender, for the simple reason it would be impossible to otherwise fit them into the timetable, and I don't remember any of the Muslim girls wearing anything different from the usual leotards.

On the whole, the MCB and their guidelines are attempting to clear up any misconceptions, and help schools in providing the facilities which are available for other faiths. My problem with the document is more in the way that it isn't acknowledging that the Muslim community is far from a consensus in its attitudes towards religion, especially when it comes to praying and contact between the sexes than the organisation itself is. While the Express article is scaremongering and very near to being Islamophobic, you can see where the belief that "they" are demanding to be treated differently comes from. If the MCB was more honest with itself than it's currently being, this would help stop such greatly inflammatory articles.

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