‘As a young girl, it felt like almost everything was banned’

“The school expelled students who were accused of being gay”

jamie al hudaaI attended Jamia Al-Hudaa Residential College for Girls in Nottingham for my high school education from 2000-2006. It is a private school which relies on fees paid for by parents and donations from the registered charity Madni Trust which also caters for a boy’s boarding school in Sheffield. It is a Deobandi school which primarily follows the Sunni Hanifi school of thought. In terms of non-religious subjects we took English, Mathematics, Science (without evolution or sex education), Urdu, Arabic, I.C.T and P.E classes were sporadic. Religious subjects included Islamic law, Quranic interpretation, the sayings of Muhammed, Islamic history classes which treated the stories of prophets as actual historical events and memorisation of the Quran.

In 2014 I returned to the school for a university project in my third year after gaining permission from the head teacher. I found that very little had changed, except that they had installed CCTV cameras in the residential corridors.

While most of the below does not necessarily mean that the school broke laws, it is my belief that Jamia Al-Hudaa infringed upon the welfare, freedom and emotional development of its pupils, compromising our secular education in favour of intensive religious study.

We had no choice of beliefs, either we followed the school’s view of Islam or we were breaking school rules. It is important to really understand this – students were not given a choice about whether they wanted to practice Islam or not, and what type of Islam they followed. If we rebelled against the conservative Islamic school rules we could face detentions, suspension, public humiliations, cleaning, fines and expulsion. We sat on the floor with wooden benches to lean on when writing. Often girls would write on these benches, and as a punishment pupils were sometimes told to clean the benches with sandpaper. I remember my fingers aching from the sandpaper grating against them. As a pupil I rebelled and challenged religion often, and so faced a lot of punishments and disapproval from some teachers. I want to make it clear that not all the teachers were horrible, some were brilliant and tried to give us what they could with the little resources they had.

I was expelled in 2006 after a room check (something they did regularly without notice) as I was caught with a disposable camera: the school did not allow us to take pictures. Tellingly the school has never released a single picture of their female students or staff, as though it is too indecent to do so. Jamia Al-Hudaa for Boys on the other hand has uploaded videos of the male students on Youtube. I was publicly expelled along with a few other girls the next day. I was asked to pack and leave as soon as my parents were able to pick me up. The sense of humiliation and shame stayed with me for years.

As a young girl, it felt like almost everything was banned: listening to music, wearing make-up, chewing gum, being gay, challenging religion, teen magazines, befriending pupils that were older than you, locking your bedroom door for too long, having a mobile phone, talking to boys, plucking your eyebrows, wearing nail polish etc. The school expelled students who were accused of being gay. The management did not hide from parents of the accused pupils or students that they were doing this, even though it is illegal for all schools to discriminate on grounds of sexuality.

The school would also make us pray 5 times a day even if we showed that we didn’t want to. For instance, they would wake us up every morning for prayer, sometimes as early as 4:00 am by knocking on doors, switching on lights and telling students off for ‘being lazy’. They made it compulsory for every prayer to be read in the main hall in my third or second year. Wardens aided by older students would tick off the names of girls who attended prayer. If we missed too many without good excuse they made us sit in the main hall and read the Quran for long periods of time. On top of this we were told that our parents would have to pay a pound for ever prayer missed. We were also forced to fast. If you were healthy and not menstruating, the school would not provide you with food until it were time to break the fast. Some pupils had their own food, like noodles or microwavable pasta, but there was little chance of being able to eat a proper meal without someone seeing you, whether it was a roommate or warden.

The school didn’t provide much in the way of entertainment or methods to engage students. No TV, barely any Internet, a dusty and deprived looking library and a P.E cupboard which consisted of a couple of tennis balls and a rounder’s bat. The school also enforced hijab on the pupils. If we were in any part of the school where a man could see us through a window or where CCTV cameras operated, we had to wear hijab. This led to me being told off for much of the time that I was there because I struggled with the hijab. I didn’t like wearing it and I found the abaya (long dress) constricting. In the years that I was there the school did not take us on a single field trip, not even to a mosque or museum. We lived very simple lives consisting of classes, the two meals provided, home work time and spending time with our friends. Naturally I have some fond memories, for 5 years it was home. This does not in any way excuse the school for its poor education and the lack of basic freedoms afforded to pupils such being able to listen to music in the comfort of your own bedroom.

It is my view that the school has proven that it cannot care for the needs of children which can be seen in the most recent Ofsted report and I believe that the head teacher has broken the law by expelling girls on the grounds of sexuality, and she is not fit to run a school.

Aliyah Saleem is co-founder of Faith to Faithless, an organisation which supports those who have chosen to leave their religion.

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