Politicisation at school
Pinterest, @redbubble

The Politicization of Muslim Girls at School Starts Early in Britain

Politicisation started back at school when I was a girl in year 8; I signed off my emails with an e-petition to release Baba Ahmed from incarceration in a U.S. super-max prison under the No Evidence Required Act 2003. I had support from a fellow Muslimah, but one of my closest friends was sceptical of the impact this would have.

I knew someone who believed that she got two grades lower in one of her GCSE history exams because one of the papers was on Arab-Israeli relations, and she wrote in her essays about the truth about Palestinian history in contrast to what was taught in the textbooks.

More recently, Muslim girls, in the school I work in, had led demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinians and made speeches to the whole school on the importance of actively speaking out against injustice.

This may be my own proximity to Muslim girlhood as a Muslim woman, but I was interested in what inspired these actions. 

My first instinct was to consult the Quran, specifically Surah An-Nisa (The Women) “O’ you who believe be upholders of Justice” as the primary inspiration for different forms of action.

For some, including myself, I was very vocal about politics before I had learnt the translation of Surah An-Nisa. In my case, my brothers taught me about politics, for example, why people opposed the invasion of Iraq; the counter-terrorism measures New Labour brought.

And I have a memory of spending my first holiday in 2007 thinking about Palestinian people as I was listening to something that vaguely goes “Oh shine a light for every soul that ain’t with us no more. Oh, my brothers. Oh, my sisters.” 

For others, it is the first-hand experiences of their parents that helped them articulate political rhetoric. Last year, there were various Twitter exchanges that cast particular Black academics as using their academic background to undermine others.

Politicisation at school
Pinterest, @Tweeteebyrd

One person appeared to suggest that knowledge about Palestinian liberation was an academic discipline. I retorted that this was not something I learnt from universities or as the phrase was thrown around “chewing books.”

I learned about the invasion of Iraq not only through my brothers, but through having an Iraqi friend. I learned about the Palestinian cause from Palestinian classmates. And their education largely came from parents and relatives who witnessed these events.

One of my classmates has an uncle responsible for record-keeping in their country, and shared fascinating insights on reconstruction and nation-building that influenced my friend’s academic interests.

Often the Twitter spats appeared to suggest that theory was supplanting lived experiences, but my anti-imperialism didn’t come from theories; they came from my classmates’ lived experiences.

I knew someone who believed that she got two grades lower in one of her GCSE history exams because one of the papers was on Arab-Israeli relations, and she wrote in her essays about the truth about Palestinian history in contrast to what was taught in the textbooks.

There are new technologies that influence young people’s political consciousness today. For example, TikTok was an organising tool for my students’ action for Palestine last year. Many pupils had Palestinian flags on their hands and organised a rally at lunch, adopting strategies pupils in other schools had used and shared via the app.

However, I don’t want to dismiss in my context that pupils’ political consciousness was also shaped by their own experiences as children from the global south. Specifically, I want to put forward one account of why Muslim girls appeared to be some of the most vocal students when it came to politics. 

Firstly, Muslim girls were politicized in footballs post-9/11 and 7/7. CBBC released a film following 7/7 that covered a Muslim student who was subject to bullying following the attacks as she was worried about her family too.

In schools, citizenship classes provided a forum for debating current affairs in a relatively unfiltered and unstructured way — a classmate once suggested that poor women shouldn’t have children and that food for sterilisation programmes in the global south was acceptable.

In my school, this extended for some of us to debating and public speaking, where we would debate topics such as military intervention in Syria and withdrawing development aid for countries that criminalise homosexuality.

The Muslim girls I reference in passing were all part of debating societies and on our WhatsApp group for history class, we reacted live to parliament’s debate on military intervention in Syria.

Politicisation at school
Pinterest, @msara177

In particular, though, the prevention legislation specifically came for Muslim girls who would be placed under suspicion for expressing dissent which involved being critical of British Foreign Policy; girls who suddenly changed their appearance — which was a dog-whistle for wearing the hijab or a long skirt. This gendered confrontation with Muslim youth could account for why we were vocal, although, many of us were vocal before. 

Another reason is that 21st-century warfare has been on Muslim majority countries — drone warfare in Libya, Somalia, Pakistan, and Syria.

But returning to Surah An-Nisa “be upholders of justice” was not limited to our nationalities or ethnicities. We also aligned on domestic policy — when I left school, I was given an award “most likely to be prime minister” that had photos of the last Tory prime ministers and my face.

I, and my friend, who called someone “a capitalist pig,” did not hide our political leanings. And my students, today, regularly suggest charity work we should be doing, how we can fundraise for members within our community, vocalising working-class solidarity within every community.