Hello and welcome to my blog, today’s post came as a result of several emails and direct messages I had received on my Instagram from new trainee teachers and those who wish to change their career into teaching about being a hijabi teacher.
Most of the questions I had received contained concerns about working in a school with the hijab and how to overcome any issues or problems they may face.
First of all I want to start off with giving a definition of the hijab, as some of the questions I was sent were also from non muslims. Also for anyone else who may be reading this post, I find it is always better to clearly define the main topic, so that there is a foundation or a starting point that we can refer back to.
What is the hijab?
The word hijab comes from the Arabic language, one of the oldest languages in the world, and this word in Arabic has a root word from which it is derived from and this word is: hajaba. Hajaba in Arabic means to conceal, veil or cover.
(Definitions from: Arabic-English Dictionary, The Hans Wehr dictionary of modern written arabic.)
Now that we know the meaning of the word, let’s go into the context of the hijab within the religion of Islam. In Islam the hijab is not meant only for muslim women as we have seen it being portrayed in such a way by most media sources and ignorant people. In fact in the quran in the surah or chapter 24 An Nur, Allah (swt) commands the prophet Muhammed (pbuh) to tell first to the muslim men to lower their gaze and to cover and protect their private parts. Below is the verse and translation.
قُلْ لِلْمُؤْمِنِيْنَ يَغُضُّوْا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَ يَحْفَظُوْا فُرُوْجَهُمْ, ذَلِكَ أَزْكَى لَهُمْ.
“Say to the believing men that: they should cast down their glances and guard their private parts (by being chaste). This is better for them.”
So in fact it is commanded and clearly told to the muslim men first to guard their modesty and to not lustfully gaze at other women, so that there is respect for each other.
Then afterwards comes the verse which commands the women:
وَ لاَ يُبْدِيْنَ زِيْنَتَهُنَّ إِلاَّ مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا وَ لْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلىَ جُيُوْبِهِنَّ…
“…and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur over their bosoms…”.
Now we go on to the term Khumur which when translated from Arabic means head covering. So now that we have the clear words and definition that hijab is not just a simple head covering for muslim women. It is in fact a mind set, it is the action of modesty that both muslim men and women must show, to protect themselves and to prevent corrupt and illicit, base acts from spreading.
In Islam modesty is very important and is regarded as one of the most important characteristics of being a good muslim. So a muslim woman may be wearing a head cover and loose or modest clothing however if she is crass, rude and using foul language or sultry body language then she does not have coorect hijab, the same goes for a muslim man as well, although his private parts may be covered he must also show good manners and respect women by not looking at them in such filthy and disrespecting ways.
Finding a job and interviews with the hijab:
Now that we have a clear definition of what the hijab is, I wanted to write about my personal experiences in my quest for finding my first permanent teaching post, after I had passed my PGCE course. To be clear during my PGCE I was placed in two schools to train, and within these schools I personally did not face any issues or problems regarding my head covering or how I dressed. The main issues I faced occurred to me after I had finished my training and was applying for permanent science teacher jobs in England.
Dring my PGCE course I had trained to be a secondary school teacher with my specialist subject being science (chemistry) as I had a biochemistry degree beforehand. Therefore I can teach students from 11 to 16 years old general science in secondary school and biology and chemistry from 16 to 19 years old (A level). So I was applying to schools mostly in London and in the East and South of England which was easiest for me to travel to, I was applying for a NQT (newly qualified teacher) or general science teacher positions. Overall my application and personal statement were seen as very good and almost every application I had sent I had received an interview offer, so in that sense I was pleased.
As I had stated earlier I had applied mainly to schools in London and a few in the East and South of England. I had found that the schools in the capital city were very accepting of my hijab and had no issues with it. There were a few schools which I had applied to in the East of England. One being a prestigious private school, which they had invited me to an interview.
When I attended the interview I was to first have a short meeting with the headteacher to be welcomed to the school and have a little tour, the intial moment she laid her eyes on me, she looked surprised and grasped her necklace and turned to her assistant and whispered (quite loudly!), “I thought she was the most educated candidate?!”. To which the assistant then went red-faced and said, “I think she heard you” which then I came in with, “I am happy that you used to see me as your most educated candidate.” The head teacher then apologised and said that she was suprised with how I looked like in real life and that she had a different image in her head.
We then continued with the plan and had a tour of the school which went well, I then had to deliver a 20 minute lesson to year 8 students about the rock cycle with the head of science and the deputy head teacher observing me. Following this there was then a group discussion with the other candidates and finally an interview with the head teacher herself. Throughout the day candidates were told through paper envelopes if they were to proceed with the interview or if they were unsuccessful. I had made it to the end with three others in total making the final four. My interview was the first one because of my surname starting with the letter A so that helped to get some of the nerves off. I answered the questions they came with as best as I could and they gave me feedback for my short lesson which they really liked and gave it a 2 or good grade using the OFSTED guidelines. So up to that point I was feeling good and thoght that I am doing well, in fact I forgot about that earlier incident. I was then told that I would be informed tomorrow if I am successful and that I am free to go home.
Fast forward to the next day, and I am eagerly awaiting that phone call, to which it came pretty late in the evening. In the end I did not get the job, they were however kind enough to give me detailed feedback about my lesson, how I performed in the group discussion segment and the interview. The feedback I was received was generally very positive and they said considering I just finished my PGCE I was showing qualities of a more experienced teacher which made me pleased, so in my confusion I asked why was I not successful if everything was good? To which the answer was that the head teacher thought I did not fit the schools image and ethos, and I questioned that as I had researched the schools aims, motto and ethos in-depth and I felt that my character, teaching philosophy and style fit it very well. The deputy head teacher agreed and rather bluntly said that my head scarf was the issue as this is one of the best schools in the country and they have a reputation of producing great minds, and that hiring someone like me does not fit as following a “medieval religion does not spark or inspire children to question and think beyond”. I was devastated when I heard that. Since regardless of my skills, qualifications and knowledge which I could bring to the school, I was instead judged by a mere cloth on my head. The last thing the deputy said was that they can reconsider my application if I remove my head scarf or wear a, “fashionable tiny turban”. I outright said no to which the deputy was surprised and said that I as a new teacher would not get such a wonderful nor, “well paying” opportunity again. I ended the conversation with how can I teach the children to be confident in themselves and be proud of who they are when I am selling my principles and my beliefs to make others happy and to fit in someone elses ideas, I then put the phone down without hearing their reply.
Now on to my first real job, I got a job offer from a school right in the most Eastern part of England, this was a very large school which was well equipped and had state of the art facilities and very good head teacher. So I accepted the job offer and I was working almost soon after. I quickly found out that all of my classes were very much behind the average level for science and hat they had over eleven different teachers in less than a year! So they were not the most eager or motivated students. However I could work with that, what I could not work with was students who were rude, aggressive and violent. Which was sadly the case for me here. One of my classes was affectionately named by the staff at my school the, “class from hell” due to the fact they had the highest teacher turnover out of all the other classes in the school. My very first lesson I had planned for them was a nice ice breaker get to know each other type of lesson with then going though the science curriculum and lessons I had planned for the next few weeks to make everything clear for them. This class was not shy nor were they going to give me the observing / calm before the storm behaviour I get from the first few lessons from most classes. These students looked at me like I was some kind of alien or make-believe creature and I was instantly bombarded with questions such as:
“Miss are you Indian?”
“Are you a nun?”
“Why do you dress like that?”
“Are you hot under there?”
“Are you dressed to go to a funeral after?”
“What is that on your head?” and the best one
“Are you bold?”
“Do you sleep and shower with that thing on?”
And the questions went on and on, I mean to be fair the school was all white English, so perhaps they had never met a Black African muslim woman in real life (and I was indeed the only black and muslim teacher in the school), but some the questions relating to my hijab or clothing was beyond silly. The sad thing was that I had tried so hard to stick to the lesson and not answer these questions as they were not related to the science I wanted (and that I am paid to) teach. When I told them that I am only here to answer questions about science or their work things went for the worst, and let me just say every lesson after that was a nightmare. Despite me planning fun, interactive activities, games and experiments they would not listen. Then soon after came the evil taunts, such as, “that hat stinks”, or “go back to India”, or “I saw people dressed like you in the newspaper you are a terrorist” or “I bet you have a bomb under there”. To be honest these were the tame ones, I got far worse verbal and written abuse on my teachers planner or on the whiteboard and it did hurt me, I tried my best not to show it in front of the students but it really hurt and I would go home sometimes thinking I want to quit teaching.
However I did not and I kept marching on trying to find different ways to get the students on my side and build up our relationship, and slowly , slowly I was seeing progress and most of the class were starting to warm up to me and learn some science, until the lesson observation incident. What happened was some of the students who I reported to the senior management team about them constantly writing and shouting racist and evil abuse at me, they were put into isolation and faced a series of exclusions from one day to one week. Now because these students knew that I reported them and they were facing punishment for heir wrong actions they started to formally complain against me to the board of governors by saying that I am a (in their words), “crap teacher and she should be fired”. I was then called by the head of science who was concerned that these students were not progressing at all in science and their complaints, so a lesson observation had to be carried out to see if I am a in fact a poor teacher or not.
Nevertheless I made a huge point that I was being verbally abused because of my race and religion for months and that I had asked countless times for support and help with dealing with this and I had received weak promises by email but no action. The outcome from this meeting was that I was in fact receiving hardly any support in tackling this class and this had to be rectified, so it was agreed that the deputy head teacher instead of the head of science, would come on an agreed date to observe me half way through the lesson so that the class would not behave differently if they had seen her already sitting in the classroom at the start of the lesson. A week later I had the so-called “class from hell” and we were supposed to be learning about reactions between metals and acids, we were just done with going through the starter activity, when I was as usual getting the verbal abuse from those same students, and right at that moment the deputy head walks in and sits at the back of the class. This was the perfect moment as she had seen some of the students swearing at me (by writing swear words alongside my name) with the mini whiteboards we were using. The lesson continues and it was clear that the students were not progressing that much in terms of meeting the learning objectives, in addition there were many times where I had to stop the flow of the lesson to carry out behavior management. To be fair at least that class were consistent in their extreme dislike for me as the racist and Islamophobic comments continued even with the presence of a senior member of staff.
Finally the lesson ended and I had gotten feedback of the lesson. She concluded that from my delivery of the lesson and the students understanding and progression was poor. I then asked what could be done about the very disruptive students who clearly had a huge issue against me and prevented the lesson from becoming productive, as if there is less behavior problems that I have to do deal with then more time can be focused on teaching the content to a higher quality. She then told me that the reason the students are not engaged is because they are distracted and I asked her by what? She then told me that even she could not concentrate on the actual content of my lesson because she couldn’t stop staring at my hijab and long skirt and was wondering all these questions in her head, so she said, “I can understand why they are not interested in the lesson and why they do not respect you, the way you are dressed is hindering their learning.”
Now after I heard that, I just had to pause,because to be honest my head was going to explode. So here you have a newly qualified teacher who is going through her first year in full-time teaching, who is given 8 large classes who have went through eleven different teachers and have huge behavior problems. This teacher has very good attendance, who is still trying her best to plan engaging lessons, deliver fun and interesting practicals, carry our the schools behavior policy and is always staying after school and in her lunch breaks to enforce the detentions she has given. Mark all books and test papers so that they are up to date. Not forgetting that she wants to improve her relationship with these students and is constantly asking for support and help from the senior leadership teachers only to be told yes we are aware and we will get something in place. To only be told after witnessing the horrific abuse I am getting to my face that the students are not learning because of how I dress?! Oh my goodness. It was exactly at that point that I realised that I can deal with silly comments and no homework being done, I can eventually with consistency and better planning get the students reaching higher standards. I can even not let these racist and rude comments about my religion get to me from those children, but when I hear from an adult who is an experienced teacher in a role of power and seniority blame all these issues on my outer appearance then no wonder the students are like this, because we are their role models and if I am not being supported then they will keep saying these nasty comments to my face even in front of the deputy head teacher because they can clearly see that I have no support. So with that I just told her that I quit, and she was absolutely baffled she said, “Why now? I thought you wanted to start your teaching career here? You was doing so well with the other classes we can together handle this class, you will get the support you need ” etc, but I was done I simply said I can not handle my fellow teaching colleagues and senior members also condoning the students twisted image of me and how I dress. So it was then and there I said I won’t be coming back tomorrow and I will send my letter of resignation tonight. I came home earlier than usual and my mother was quite worried (I was living my parents at that time), and I told her that I had quit and then went through telling her my whole experience, and she said that she is proud of me and that I have done my best so I have nothing to regret. Although it was scary for me to look again for a new job I felt so free and full of hope again that I can be a great teacher and share my passion with the right school.
Phew that was a very long tale, excuse me I just had to share that example, because I know there are muslim women who are educated, polite and caring who work in a wide variety of jobs (not only teaching) who have been through Islamophobic and or racist abuse from colleagues, customers etc. I know others who were unfairly dismissed from their jobs and others who faced job losses and threats. I want young muslim women who may have had struggles, to know that there are others too who have faced battles and painful experiences at their work place just because of how they dress or look. I want them to not give up, that these situations can and should make you stronger, and that not every work place is the right place for you. It is not easy wearing the head covering and having modest loose clothing like abayas (the long black dress), or maxi skirts, loose blouses etc. Due to the fact that you do unfortunately stand out, now although I have grown up in the UK and I am a British citizen, I personally did not face much racism or Islamophobic actions against me until this period of my life at my first job. I would also like to compare living in London which I see as my home and beloved city to other large European cities which I have stayed in for longer periods of time (Zurich- Switzerland and Dortmund- Germany) and in these cities the looks and comments and abuse I received in such a short time was miles ahead of what I have faced here in England. I think that the UK is one of the most tolerant countries in the world and that being a muslim here is a lot better than many other places in Europe, also to work and study as we have more freedom to practice our religion and progress in our jobs. However I still wanted to give an insight into the realities of being a practicing muslim woman in England and that even though a lot of progress has been made to make our communities more diverse and understanding racism and Islamophobia still exists.
To make this extremely long post shorter, my next job was in an inner city London school for boys, which had a wonderfully diverse staff and student body, they had prayer rooms for all faiths and they had excellent whole school activities and events for cultural, moral and spiritual development for both the staff and students.
Tips for hijabi teachers:
- Always be confident about your beliefs, if you believe in the hijab and you feel comfortable and beautiful in it then wear it happily. Being confident helps to make you secure and to focus on what is important in your job which is teaching the students.
- Keep it between yourself, do not go around preaching about the way you dress or making it into a big deal. Everybody has the right to wear what they want and practice what they want.
- Wear it in a comfortable style that does not restrict you nor is too loose that it can be hazard for example I am a science teacher and I keep it a good length so that it is not too short nor too long and I also tuck it in. I usually wear a blazer on top, a cardigan or a lab coat to ensure no loose ends in the front/back or shoulders accidentally come into contact with hazardous substances, get caught on sharp objects/doors or fire.
- Remember that you are a role model so be proud of your principles and beliefs and always aim to be an outstanding teacher who is always there for their students. You have the chance to share and portray a positive image of muslim women and to dispel some the negative stereotypes about muslims that have been perpetuated within the last decade. That it is our choice to cover ourselves, that we are not oppressed and with this cloth over our heads and our modest clothes, that we can and want to be educated and work in order to do something positive for our communities.
- Also your presence as a muslim teacher can inspire muslim boys and girls in your class, by having a positive example right in front of their eyes so that they can aspire to do well in their education.
- Wear styles, materials or colours that suit you and that you feel confident in. Look at YouTube tutorials about hijab styles that suit your face shape or career choice.
- Keep your scarves and modest clothing clean, neat and ironed to ensure that you are looking classy and professional at all times.
- Wear colours that are professional such as black, gray, navy blue, dark brown, peach/nude pink as they help you to look put together and classy.
- If you face any kind of abuse because of your religion or how you dress, then you must record the incident with the date and time and collect all pieces of evidence. Then as soon as possible notify the relevant member of staff, the best place to start is sending an email to your head of department and copy or CC the deputy head teacher or your line manager in the email. Always keep professional and do not react to these abuses, keep cool and calm and go through the proper channels. If no actions are being taken to rectify the issue then you must take it further and get the head teacher and school governors involved. If the issue has still not been resolved and it is very serious then get in contact with your union or union representative and they will support you with the best legal advice.
- When attending an interview take your time to look around the school, talk to the students and the staff. Read about the schools curriculum or program for moral, social, cultural and spiritual development see if it is an important part of their school life. Also look at the schools staff and student population, are they diverse? Usually schools like this are more respecting of peoples differences in their race, age or religion.
- If you are working at a school whereby you feel that you are not supported or respected by the staff and they have a clear issue against your religion and that you practice it. Then you must really think about if this is the place that you want to work for the next years of your life, see if you feel that this environment is for you. Remember if you do not feel respected or safe then you can never enjoy your job so it is best to leave and find another place that is better suited.
Above is a photo of me showing how I dressed, I usually wore a long dress that was loose-fitting, with my head scarf around my neck, ears and hair. With a blazer (from Mango) on top to help put the outfit together and make everything clean and professional looking.
From my seven years in teaching full-time (9 years in total with volunteering), overall I have been treated very well in most of the schools I have worked in the UK. I have found that by being an ethnic minority and a practicing muslim woman who was well qualified and skilled, most schools wanted to interview me and for me to work for them. In my last two schools which were both in London, students and staff had no issues that I am a muslim, in fact the some of the female members of staff had voted for me as being the best dressed teacher at our end of year party. The best comment that I got was from a shy muslim girl who I taught for three years, and before she graduated and left. She had written to me inside a thank you card that she always thought she was not going to go to university, and that she was going to marry someone and just stay at home because she was scared of the world out of school and being a hijabi in this current climate of fear against muslims. However she saw me as her teacher day in day out and how confident and smart I was and that inspired her to go to apply to university, now she studies law at a one of the best universities in the world, and I am so proud of her, and so humbled that I could help to make a positive change like this.
I hope this post answered a lot of the questions I was getting from muslims and non muslims alike about the practicalities of being a teacher and wearing a head scarf and modest clothing.
Let me know if any of you are interested in the second part of this blog post which is my experiences and tips of being a hijabi teacher abroad (in Germany and Qatar).
If you are a muslim teacher, I would be interested if you could leave a comment below about your experiences in being a teacher. And of course non muslims are welcome to leave their questions or if there was anything you noticed about how your muslim colleagues were being treated?
I would also really appreciate it if any trainee teachers, new teachers or teachers in general form all faiths or races, age, gender etc to write to me about any difficulties they faced in their workplace and how they overcame it.