What does Islamophobia look like in schools - and what can schools do about it?

Updated: Nov 26


This is a difficult and sensitive piece to write because it is about my identity too. By no means are the lived experiences shared here representative of Muslims everywhere. However, in some way, shape, or form, other Muslims may relate, others with protected characteristics may empathise and, I hope, people, in general, will read, think, be compassionate and show their solidarity with Muslim experiences of Islamophobia.


I was 12 years old when 9/11 happened. I remember sitting on the benches in the school playground when we heard the news and going to my grandparents after school to watch it unfold. It was awful. Before then, I didn’t really know what the Twin Towers were, nor did I really have a sense of being different or Muslim at school. Since then, my religious identity has become somewhat of an indirect focal point; I use the word ‘indirect’ because very quickly, Islamophobia and a term we are hearing more often, microaggressions, were a normalised, everyday occurrence. In fact, in some ways, my generation and generations before us are perhaps to blame for justifying our identities as opposed to calling out barefaced prejudice. Here it is again, practically gaslighting my story in the first few lines: a consequence of microaggressions and prejudice! And, they wonder why people with protected characteristics have a heightened sense of imposter syndrome and insecurities.


Is it all ‘Islamophobia’ though?

Islamophobia is real. It is a real experience for Muslims and has been defined by the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims as ‘rooted in racism and … a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.’ This year, Home Office official statistics show that 2 in 5 (42%) religious hate crimes were targets against Muslims and the next most commonly targeted group (1 in 4, 23%) were Jewish people. Tackling Denial is the theme of this year’s Islamophobia Awareness Month, and quite rightly so, we need to acknowledge and recognise Islamophobia to collectively discuss and overcome it.


Working in education gives you a real insight into how prejudice, bias and eventually hatred can so easily infiltrate young minds. However, critical questions and genuine curiosity about religion isn’t necessarily ‘phobic’. But, context matters and when laced with bias, negativity and prejudice, it is a micro (or macro) aggression, and Islamophobic.


It’s important to empathise, though. Whilst a question or comment about Islam or any faith may not be intended with bias, the experiences of Muslims and those with protected characterisitcs have been so jarring, prejudice and difficult that it feels natural to be triggered. It’s a protective and coping mechanism too.

Learning how to have difficult conversations, doing your research and building relationships are key, before going in with a fully loaded question!


My lived experiences as a Muslim Teacher

As a young Muslim professional, I experienced a fair few religious microaggressions, but nothing in comparison to friends who wore the hijab or had a beard. Unfortunately (and wrongly), I learned very quickly that assimilating with the majority was survival, success, promotion and more. In all honesty, I think I still battle with this mindset today; it’s toxic.


Very early on in my career (over 10 years ago), I remember getting some resources ready in the corner of the office (I was kneeling down using a guillotine - I do NOT miss those days) when a colleague walked past and said, ‘you won’t find Mecca facing that way, Zahara’. I was 22, did not know what to say and was told by more experienced colleagues, to ‘laugh it off’ and ‘that’s just [x]’. Of course they knew it was wrong as did I and of course they were supportive. But all of us had normalised prejudice - and this experience is an example of it.


Later in my career, teaching something literature related to a GCSE class, a student started shouting, ‘Mohammad is a pedophile’ and would not stop. I remember feeling sick. I was so angry at myself for not knowing what to say back; for not protecting or standing up for my Muslim students. I looked around my classroom at other Muslim students and I genuinely did not know what to do or say. I was later told by the student’s parent that their child was entitled to ‘free speech’. The sad thing is that DEI, Equality Policies, and their place in behaviour policy were not as apparent or visible as they are now.


In all of my experiences, an attack (and it is an attack) on your identity, something which is You and an intrinsic part of your being, a part that you’re proud of and enjoy, is debilitating. That’s the best way I can describe it. For a while it leaves you feeling pretty rubbish. Sometimes you react with anger or humour; sometimes you look to report it and more often than not you just stay silent. You take a deep breath and move on, because you know how exhausting it is to keep thinking or talking about it. But they are all jarring reminders that you do not fully belong. Later in life, when triggered, you may be accused of being defensive, aggressive, jumping to conclusions, being too 'hasty'...this, readers, might be called a form of gaslighting.


Student experiences

What does Islamophobia look and feel like for students? Here are some examples based on my experiences in schools, and what you can do about it. These are by no means true of all schools and I am fully aware that schools are trying to create inclusive cultures. However, I am sure the examples will resonate or mirror what many Muslim students have experienced.


The hijab, the beard and uniform.

The hijab is historically and currently a constant topic of discussion. Whilst no one has the right to question or comment on a woman’s appearance and dress, sometimes questions and comments about the hijab show no respect or boundaries. Recent events in Iran, France, Denmark, all concerning the hijab can make young Muslim students feel more conscious and more aware of bias and criticism they may face, perceived or otherwise. Comments about the length of beards, the need for a beard and the style of a beard is also a feature in discussions about uniform policy, sometimes even health and safety.


Whilst the latter is of course an important feature of policy, school leaders and decision-makers need to appreciate cultural responsibility and religious norms too. The likelihood is that students who have grown up in households and communities representative of religious dress and features like a beard will also know how to keep these in line with health and safety, safeguarding and more. We don’t need to patronise members of our school community.


On that note, if, as a school leader, this leads you to think in ‘whataboutisms’, there is a lot of unthinking and confronting bias you need to do. Put quite simply, whataboutisms are a type of argument to encourage assimilation; and to detract from the root cause of the issue. Don’t use them. Instead, just pick up the phone, arrange conversations, invite students, parents and community members in to discuss policy in a safe space - discussing these topics are a great way to connect with your diverse school communities and to overcome the ‘phobia’ around it.


Sports

Sport can encourage healthy competition, however it is also a field which we know can spark hatred against marginalised communities. Azeem Rafiq, Euro 2020 and even films like Bend it Like Beckham have brought our attention to it. Students can experience microaggressions and religious bullying in sport and often, if an adult isn’t around, there is a fear of victim blaming, the excuse of it being ‘heat in the moment’ or, being managed in silence by the victim.


It is hard for teachers to control this and be present all the time. Equally, it’s not the easiest environment to control (try walking through a game of football on the school playground at lunchtime…). However, if we start lessons and sports by reinforcing your policy for anti-racism, zero tolerance for bullying and a need to respect individuals, this can help. We can also teach healthy competition so students do not feel the need to spout anger or be aggressive.


Ramadan

Ramadan is not a chore. It is a celebration, a wonderful, very important month for Muslims. Like the hijab and other elements of the faith, Ramadan has been a consistent part of life for Muslim students. Much of the time, they may welcome discussions about it - it’s reaffirming when someone wants to know about your identity, with genuine interest. However, this isn’t to say Muslim students and teachers won’t feel tired, hungry or thirsty throughout the day.


In these moments, Muslims who are fasting are not looking to be told how difficult it is; they’re not wanting others to question their choice to fast. Instead, they want your understanding, your empathy and your encouragement. They may or may not need adaptations to a lesson. A Muslim teacher may need to actually rest their voice at lunch, or email contact as opposed to yet another after school meeting. Students may present as a little quieter than usual (especially on a hot day) and may not want to take part in Physical Education (although, in my experience, so many do!).


It is very easy to plan ahead and avoid the angst that Muslim students and staff may feel in the run up to Ramadan. School Leaders can support the Muslim community by displaying positive affirmations about Ramadan around school; opening up a space for Muslim students and staff to spend lunch, break times and free periods; ensuring there are halal options and dates available in case a meeting or a club runs over and being mindful of calendar events such as internal exams or trips during Ramadan. If you ask students and staff what they need and what they would like, it can help create the inclusive and peaceful environments we all want in schools.


Negativity in the media

There is no denying that the media portrayal of Muslims and Islam can be tinged with negative bias. It can result in:

  • Prejudice, bias, stereotyping, misogyny and bullying at school

  • limiting beliefs and under-attainment at school

  • Negative and deficit language use when discussing Islam and Muslim lived experiences; for example, ‘it’s such a shame you have to cover your hair, it’s beautiful!’ Or, ‘you must be baking wearing that in this [hot] weather!’ ‘It’s a bit odd separating boys and girls in a mosque’.

  • A perceived lack of cultural capital (the assumption that Muslim students may be somewhat disadvantaged due to their lived experiences).

These are just a few examples to essentially paint a picture of how media coverage (even if subconscious) can in many ways fuel religious microaggressions.


A recent example that may fuel Islamophobia, religious and racial microaggressions is coverage about the Qatar World Cup. Yes, there are concerns about migrant workers and the LGBT+ community, however there is also a Western narrative which is criticising a Middle Eastern Muslim Country. Muslim students may feel insecure and unable to express their views, simply because of who they are. Any discussion may be received critically, just because they are Muslim. They may feel a constant need to justify their identity, their support of their chosen team, and their sense of belonging too - it’s a really difficult and stressful experience.


Across the curriculum, it is important to teach positive representations of Islam. Sometimes, to ‘raise awareness’ we get caught up in teaching the negative. This in itself fuels a ‘deficit narrative’ a very apt phrase I learned from Aisha Thomas. Use resources like Bennie’ Kara’s book, IAM’s exhibition and Ayman Mohyeldin’s article on ‘Western double standards’ to encourage a narrative that directly challenges media bias - it is more important than ever, especially with the rise of social media.


Interracial Islamophobia

Uncomfortable opinion: microaggressions and Islamphobia can be experienced between Muslims too. Questioning ‘how Muslim’ someone is based on their lived experiences, their sexuality and gender, their choice of clothes, their race, their beliefs and their upbringing can be a source of tension between students. None of this should be tolerated; safeguarding all students in a school is vital. The same Equality Policy applies and without the risk of gaslighting or victim blaming, it is important that all students of faith or otherwise respect the values and beliefs of each other. This can be difficult to navigate and training on difficult conversations is encouraged to support staff and parents with this.


Islamophobia is jarring and painful. As a parent, it hurts me so much to think my children and Muslim students, even in 2022, in what we call a globally diverse and progressive world, could be subject to this kind of hate, simply for who they are, their values and their beliefs.


It is now more important than ever that we work together to support our Muslim teachers and students; to ensure we nurture safe, inclusive policies and practices that go beyond tokenism; to increase representation of Muslim staff within the Education profession. Lessons, training and an active awareness to prevent religious microaggressions is integral to building a culture of belonging and connection. It might start with a few posters, a prayer room, a training session and a few PSHE lessons…there is a great deal of support, education and advice to help you.


And, for Muslim students (all Muslim students) - don’t be ashamed or scared of your identity. In fact, it was my identity being called into question that led me into blogging all those years ago. I guess, this method is my response to the prejudice, hate and nastiness out there - and it’s having a positive impact on inclusion! Feel free and confident to talk, ask for help and report Islamophobia to your Safeguarding Leads. Your religion is an integral, rich and multifaceted part of who you are - be proud of it and you!


…as always, feel free to get in touch for more information and support to diversity, inclusion and creating a culture of belonging for your students and staff.


Useful links for students and teachers:



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