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IAM reflections, from Waltham Forest MEND

IAM reflections, from Waltham Forest MEND

Categories: Past Event Articles

Wednesday December 05 2018

In case you missed it, November marks Islamophobia awareness month (IAM) – a month in which both Muslims and non-Muslims host events to bridge communities, raise awareness of Islamophobia and celebrate the many contributions of British Muslims.

This year, Waltham Forest MEND moved beyond a focus on Islamophobia in the adult world, to its manifestations in the school playground.

Ideas are easily spread, and the bombardment of young minds with negative depictions of the “other” can have negative consequences.

MEND recognises the importance of the classroom as a means for young people to learn about the world around them, and ultimately shape their understanding of differences and similarities with people from other communities. School is also a means of developing the critical thinking skills to challenge lazy media types which perpetuate negative stereotypes of a given community, and strengthening one’s own sense of identity and pride in their heritage. Thus, we recognise the importance of speaking with young people on the receiving and initiating end of discrimination, as well as everyone in between.

We spoke with young Muslims (aged 10-16) at Fatima Elizabeth Cates (FEC) Academy and Noor ul Islam Primary School about their understanding of Islamophobia, the causes of discrimination in general (including the pitfalls of perpetuating stereotypes and media bias), and the importance of challenging these stereotypes.
Given the large age range, the conversations varied hugely.

The older students at FEC were very much aware of the role of the media in perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and the discord in their own understanding of their religion and how it is depicted in the media.

The younger students understood the concept of bullying, but were less able to identify where ideas leading to specific forms of bullying originated from. What united the students was a firm understanding of the importance of fairness and equity. While I left FEC with confidence that I had spoken with students who had a strong sense of justice and equality, young people showed signs of internalising the conflation of Islam with terrorism. When asked to draw or describe a terrorist, students often responded with images of Islamic extremists or Muslim-looking men. I could only attribute this to the impact of consistent media representations of Muslims as extremist, fundamentalist and barbaric.

The onus of ensuring the impact of islamophobia doesn’t affect young Muslims minds pride in their sense of self, lies with us all. To better understand how to speak to young Muslims about islamophobia, Islam and their sense of self.

We invited Zanib Mian (Author & founder of Muslim Children’s books and sweet Apple Publishing), and Shahana Khanom (Founder of Kaydeena), to speak with ourselves and local Muslim parents about such issues.

Zanib stressed on the importance of representation of Muslims or other ethnic groups as individuals whose entire identities do not rest upon their status as being a member of a given ethnicity or religion. Some of us reflected upon books we had read which included members of our own community. We came back with slightly depressing examples of children’s books which perpetuated the notion of the oppressed brown girl.

The conversation moved toward visibility of Muslims who are both outwardly religious, and successful, with some comments that the two seemed mutually exclusive at times. Zanib agreed with the importance of role models in empowering and inspiring young people but reminded us of the importance of instilling an intrinsic sense of pride in one’s identity above and beyond any reliance on external factors or individual events, and individual beings.
The importance of an intrinsic set of beliefs and empowerment around one’s own Islamic identity was also expressed by Shahana, in her description of why she felt the need to start mother and baby play-group which focussed on Islamic teaching.

Shahana stressed on the importance of educating all children about all aspects of the community in which they reside, to ease the comfort with which students in the minority felt expressing themselves. She gave several examples of visits she made to her own children’s schools, teaching children about how Eid is celebrated.
She spoke about the importance of making learning – all learning – enjoyable for students. Shahana, much to my amusement, told us she put a Muslim slant on nursery rhymes, and dressed as an owl to read Islamic stories, and bought lots of Pringle tubes so that children could create telescopes to understand the moon-sighting concept.
One parent in the room asked Shahana if she could organise similar events for adults. It turns out she doesn’t do anything for adults exclusively, much to our dismay. She does however focus on working with parents to work with children, an important move away from the exclusive focus on the child.

We asked parents to write down awkward questions they’d been asked from their children, asking both our guest speakers, Zanib and Shahana, as well as other parents to comment on how they’d go about answering such a question. Some thought provoking and, frankly, hilarious questions were discussed. Zanib reflected upon the importance of parents feeling comfortable enough to tell their children that they don’t have the answers, but to empower them in seeking them.

While we had set out to teach children about discrimination and where it stems from, we walked away having learned some very important lessons ourselves: the importance of recognising young people as vehicles for positive change, and empowering them to do so.


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