For most of us, late Autumn means crawling out from under the duvet at silly o’clock and heading out to catch a bus to school, work or uni in the freezing cold. For me, this season also means getting to know a crop of new students as they begin their year-long English courses. The youngest among them shuffle in, clinging to their parents’ legs and, when they eventually peer out, I catch their gaze and introduce myself:
“Hello! I’m Sarah, your new English teacher.”
Their little faces usually scrunch up in confusion. As an English teacher in Italy, I don’t really fit on the standard scale of Britishness that Italian children have come to expect of their instructors. I’ve got the cheery Mary Poppins voice but, if common misconceptions are to be believed, it doesn’t match the scarf wrapped around my head.
Thankfully, normalizing the hijab is a piece of cake with most children. It only takes a few minutes of friendly chatter for them to see that I’m just a regular young woman in my twenties. Asking important questions like, ‘Who would win in a water balloon fight – The Hulk or Ironman?’ tends to render the hijab practically invisible to most of the kids in my class.
I’m always happy when a child takes the bold step to ask why I’m wearing a scarf, though. After all, education is all about nurturing curious young minds. These questions are always predictably unpredictable. In fact, my typical day involves a mixture of blunt honesty (“your tummy is round, are you pregnant?”), unfiltered curiosity (“are you bald?”) and wild imagination (“are you Medusa?”). Then there’s my personal favourite which came after a girl’s close up inspection of my hijab. She noticed a straight pin sticking out and let out the horrified cry, “Urgh! You staple-gun that to your head everyday??”
Reactions to the hijab aren’t always so adorable, though. You can be faced with negative assumptions from all ages whether it’s a seven year old telling another student, “Mum says the teacher has to wear it because she married a Muslim,” or a bold twelve year old asking, “If I said something bad about Islam, would you have to kill me?”
Although these comments are upsetting to hear, they are great opportunities for us to correct misinformation and present the Islam that most Muslims try to live by, rather than allowing negative or false media representations to be the only contact people have with Islam. It’s not surprising that someone might harbour a negative view of Muslims if that’s all they encounter on a regular basis.
You might feel disheartened by the inevitability of this fact, but sometimes all it takes to dispel these ideas is spending some time with someone of another faith and cultural background. In fact, it’s surprising how many barriers you can break just by being yourself, especially as a woman wearing the hijab.
One example from my own experience was when a 15-year-old student in my class declared that he didn’t like ‘muscle men.’ Although for a split second I thought he meant bodybuilders, I soon realized he meant Muslims (musulmano in Italian) when he added, “They are always killing people.”
I was unsure how to respond and so I asked, “Well, do you know that I’m Muslim?”
To which he replied, “Yes, and that’s what confuses me because you are so nice.”
What struck me most about this incident was the simplicity with which this teenager began to question the negative image he had held of Muslims. All it took was coming into contact with a Muslim (who happened who wear a hijab) in a real life context. All it took was showing him how human Muslims can be, how being Muslim and ‘nice’ are not opposites. After we’d chatted for a while he smiled and said,
“I’m happy we spoke about it. I feel much better now. Thank you.”
Being open to the questions and concerns of children helps to pave the path for a society which celebrates difference rather than fearing it. We can challenge pre-conceived ideas through our actions so that we are not defined solely by the stereotypes that hover over us like rainclouds, but by how we live and share our lives with others. It doesn’t take much to be the person to break the thin, deceiving wall of propaganda that has been built around Islam in most people’s minds. Sometimes all you have to do is smile warmly, and all of a sudden the hijab, which may have been a symbol of violence and oppression, just becomes a scarf on the head of a pleasant person. And those who may have been quick to say “All Muslims…” will think twice before making such general statements.