Faith schools and gender segregation: a worrying trend

“It is not just gender segregation policies that can foster a hostile environment for female pupils. Ofsted has also been vocal about widespread sexism and misogyny within ‘faith’ schools.”

Last week, an Islamic school in Birmingham was caught advertising for a male-only science teacher. The advert, since removed from their Twitter page, made it clear that the school would only be hiring for a male teacher.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has since stated that gender specific job adverts are ‘discriminatory and unlawful, unless an occupational requirement applies’.  In other words, in order to justify this discrimination, the school would have needed to prove that there was a clear link between the specific job and the need for the teacher to be male. It is hard to see how this could be applied for the role as a science teacher. The headmaster of the Salafi Independent School has claimed that the decision was made because of ‘religious observance reasons’.

The event can be seen as part of a wider issue of gender inequalities faced by both teachers and students in ‘faith’ schools across the UK. And this is not confined merely to the initial hiring of teachers. Once hired, male and female staff members may continue to face unequal treatment in a variety of ways.

“The sexist policies of these ‘faith’ schools do nothing to challenge these damaging stereotypes.”

For instance, in 2015 Ofsted reported that the Rabia School in Luton was segregating male and female members of staff during training programs, and expecting the women to watch the broadcasted sessions from a separate room. A dividing screen was even erected during an initial meeting with Ofsted.

Pupils are also frequent targets of these gender segregating policies. Ofsted has found cases of segregation in Islamic, Jewish, and Christian ‘faith’ schools. FSA has previously reported on a madrassa where girls were taught by a male teacher from an adjacent room. Books were passed through a hole in the wall to ensure there was no contact.

The Rabia School was also condemned in the same Ofsted report for practising ‘unequal treatment of girls and boys’. For example, as part of the design and technology curriculum, girls were denied access to the boy’s laboratory, and limited to ‘knitting and sewing’. These actions not only signal a lack of respect for gender equality and tolerance, but are also clearly unlawful. Ofsted has argued in a number of cases that gender segregation policies of ‘faith’ schools can be considered discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010 as the policies tend to place women at an inferior level to men.

“One mother reported her daughter being told that her knee length dress was ‘disgusting’.”

It is not just gender segregation policies that can foster a hostile environment for female pupils. Ofsted has also been vocal about widespread sexism and misogyny within ‘faith’ schools. Grindon Hall Christian School and Durham Free School were both criticised by inspectors for not discouraging a sexist and homophobic culture. Accelerated Christian Education schools have been reported as teaching that women are to be subservient to their husbands, their pastor, and other male figures. And other Christian ‘faith’ schools have also been criticised for not teaching pupils a full Relationships and Sex Education curriculum, avoiding topics related to women’s reproductive rights and sexuality.

Gender segregation policies often go hand in hand with strict uniform policies for female pupils. FSA has previously reported on a Modern Orthodox Jewish School, with split campuses for boys and girls, where girls faced teachers who had an ‘obsession with dress code and skirt length’. One mother reported her daughter being told that her knee length dress was ‘disgusting’. Another Jewish school was banned from admitting new pupils in 2016 in part because it was teaching pupil that ‘women showing bare arms and legs are impure.’

Numerous other ‘faith’ schools have been accused of not promoting British values, too. A Jewish Independent school was failed by Ofsted in 2016 in part for inadequately preparing pupils for ‘life in modern Britain’ – including reporting that pupils demonstrated ‘stereotypical views on the roles of men and women, with men “going to work” and women “cooking and cleaning”.’ In January last year, a Muslim school in Tower Hamlets was found to have books in its library that promoted the inequality of men and women, and which also included details about punishments such as ‘stoning to death’.

The opportunity for children to learn and socialise together is part of their preparation for life after school. Schools are also places where children pick up a huge amount of the information on gender roles and gender stereotypes. Tragically, a recent study found that by the age of six, girls already believe that being smart, and being brilliant, are male traits. The sexist policies of these ‘faith’ schools do nothing to challenge these damaging stereotypes.

FSA team

Ofsted’s ‘whack-a-mole’ approach to private Muslim schools is necessary but short-sighted

“Every single month, and it tends to be more regular even than that, a new story appears of a school in England, for reasons of religion, badly failing its pupils”

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Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw

Last week Ofsted’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw sent the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan a letter expressing his concern about the ‘urgent and escalating’ problems caused by unregistered faith schools. As with his previous letters on this issue, Sir Michael focused primarily on Muslim schools, in line with Ofsted’s clear policy of prioritising the Government’s ‘Prevent’ and Counter-Extremism strategies in its work.

Unlike his previous letters, however, this latest missive rightly points out that problems are not simply confined to unregistered Muslim schools operating illegally and outside of the system, but to fully registered independent Muslim schools too.

This is not before time.

In January of this year, for instance, an independent Muslim school in Tower Hamlets, east London, was reported for having books in its library that ‘promote inequality of women and punishments, including stoning to death, which are illegal in Britain’ and which ‘undermine the active promotion of the rule of British law and respect for other people’.

In February, a similar school in Luton was found to be ‘undermining British values’ as a result of its ‘unequal treatment of girls and boys’. Not only were girls found to ‘not have the same access to laboratory facilities that the boys have’, but they were also ‘limited to knitting and sewing’ in design and technology classes.

In March, a private Muslim school in Dewsbury was investigated for teaching an ‘extreme form of Islam’ which, according to Sky News, included the distribution of literature which ‘warn[ed] Muslims not to adopt British customs’  and claimed that ‘Jews are engaged in a conspiracy to take over the world’.

In April, a school visited by inspectors was reported to be segregating male and female staff and governors during meetings ‘through the use of a dividing screen across the middle of the room’, something which Sir Michael also wrote to the Education Secretary about so as to highlight the fact that similar policies appear to be in place at a number of other independent schools around the country.

In May, inspectors moved to shut down a school in Staffordshire after being alerted to the fact that children were being put ‘at risk of exposure to extremism and radicalisation’. Similar action was reported in relation to illegal schools in London, Birmingham, Luton, and Wolverhampton.

In June, Ofsted reported that at a school in Birmingham inspectors had discovered ‘a large number of copies of a leaflet containing highly concerning and extremist views, such as “Music, dancing and singing are acts of the devil and prohibited”’. The same school was previously criticised for the segregation of male and female governors.

By now, you get the picture. Every single month, and it tends to be more regular even than that, a new story appears of a school in England, for reasons of religion, badly failing its pupils. And this is by no means a problem exclusive to Muslim schools. A similar exercise could just as easily have been carried out with regard to Christian or Jewish schools, as has been evidenced by the previous blog posts uploaded to this site.

It’s also worth saying that for every school mentioned here, there are clearly a number of Muslim schools that are delivering an education with which, rightly or wrongly, Ofsted have no problem. The point, though, is that in any system which allows schools to be subject to so significant a degree of religious influence, as our system does, offences are going to be committed and they are going to be committed often. It is inevitable.

It is therefore clear that whilst the Government must of course continue to pursue a counter-extremism strategy – and in doing so it naturally justified in focussing its attention predominantly on Muslim schools –engaging in a game of ‘faith’ school whack-a-mole, which deals only with problems as and when they arise, can never be successful. If it really wants to solve the problem of extremism and intolerance in the classroom, it must be proactive and widen its scope, acknowledging once and for all that dismantling the freedoms afforded within the ‘faith’ school sector as a whole is the only way forward.

FSA team

‘Empowering women through education’, they said. The madrasa’s actual teachings were very different

2016 05 13 LW v1 Madrasa“As free mixing was not allowed, the male teacher sat in an adjacent room to the students and used a mic to teach us.”

I went to a part time (3 hours a day, 6 days a week) madrasa that taught a seven year alimah course for girls ages 11+. We were taught Arabic, Urdu, Fiqh, Hadith, and Tafsir. The first five years were taught by female alimahs, and the final years, where we were taught the six authentic hadith collections, were taught by male alims.

This was usually said to be because female scholars were not as qualified to teach the important books. Also, as free mixing was not allowed, the male teacher sat in an adjacent room to the students and used a mic to teach us. There was a hole in the wall that separated our two rooms, which was covered by a curtain, and it would be used to pass books and things to each other, but we never saw each other.

The madrasa followed the Hanafi Deobandi school of thought, and as such its rules were usually quite strict and restricting. The dress code for all pupils was a black scarf and abaya, and a niqab which had to be worn when travelling to and from home. We were taught that the niqab was fardh (compulsory), and often girls who came in without a niqab would be sent home. Music was also prohibited, and we were told that those who listen to music would get molten lead poured into their ears in the hereafter. Talking about such punishments and the afterlife was very common, and we even had a lecture where the speaker turned the lights off and made us lie down and pretend we were in the grave, in order to scare us into being more religious.

Although the website for the madrasa states that it is dedicated to ‘empowering women through education,’ their actual teachings were very different. We were taught that as women, we were to obey our husbands, to the extent that we could not even leave the house without his permission. A woman’s position was said to be in the house, and any contact with non-mahram men was strictly prohibited. We were even told to put on deeper voices if we had to talk to a guy, so he would not be attracted to our soft feminine voices. We were also discouraged from getting jobs that were not in an Islamic setting, and the only job that was encouraged was being an Islamic teacher, which is what almost all of my former classmates have gone on to become.

There was also a lot of homophobia, and homosexuality was seen as a strange and unnatural thing. This issue was actually one of the things I first argued with my teacher about when I started doubting Islam and realised I no longer thought that it was a sin. To his credit though, he was willing to engage and listen, and admitted that if his child was not straight, he would still love them but due to Islam’s rulings, he would be forced to disown them. This teacher was in fact one of the more liberal ones, and was later fired because he was friendly with us and would sometimes bring us food if we were going to have a particularly long lesson, and other staff members thought it was inappropriate for a male to be interacting with female students in this manner.

However, although a lot of the teachers were very strict, some were more open minded. When I first began having doubts about Islam, I confided in one of my classmates and a teacher, and they were both very understanding and we are still friends – even after I eventually told them about my apostasy. Due to this, I actually loved being a student at the madrasa. I highly value the friendships I made with the other students and even some teachers, and the actual learning was both interesting and stimulating. Overall, despite the negatives, I still view my madrasa experience as a highly positive one.

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