By: Hamida Begum
Having gone to a predominantly Asian school in East London, I was met with expectations from a school which was mostly staffed of white middle-class teachers. I felt that the prospects put against young British South Asians, specifically girls like myself, are often that of middle-class and white prospects. Along with this, the discipline and expectations they have of South Asian girls, match the expectations they have of young white children. The perspective that everyone starts on the same slate, maybe even with many South Asian children at an advantage due to being bilingual and having typically strict expectations from parents, is only a form of inhibition for some of the most marginalised members in British society.
It is important to state that Asian girls are not a homogenous category as there are many different intersections between us. It is important to bear in mind that most South Asians tend to favour collectivism whilst British society encourages individualism. So what does this mean when it comes to disciplining young British South Asian schoolgirls? For a while, I have not been aware of the difficulties that many South Asian girls endure whilst in school, simply because I am not at that stage of my life anymore. Thinking of that time in my life, where most Asian girls like myself had to come home to responsibilities and answering to our parents and then dealing with the difficulties of growing up and finding yourself, school truly is a tough time. However, I particularly remember one event in school which I regularly think about.
I once wore the incorrect uniform to school, something I used to do regularly, and a senior department member from the school had noticed and had confiscated this item. At the time, I was going through a lot at home and was often getting in trouble for misbehaving both at school and at home. By that point, I was aware that if one more phone call was made by a teacher to my mum, it would have been a lot of trouble. The teacher who had confiscated my incorrect uniform was a white middle-class male. He told me he would give my mother a call straight away and I had pleaded him not to out of fear of what my mother’s response would be. Once I was sure that he would definitely report my misdemeanour back to my mother, I begged him not to because I was going through a lot at home and it would put me in a lot of trouble. I even said something along the lines of “you don’t know what I’m going through” to which he responded, “I don’t care”.
I was not shocked because I was used to this predominantly white-teaching school disciplining Asian children the same as they would white children. I always thought, “But they don’t have to deal with stuff like we do!” Although this is a complex topic, I am not calling for a difference of discipline depending on the racial background of children. I just believe that there should be more consideration by teachers of the consequences certain children face. Firstly, this teacher failed at their job of protecting a child’s safety by not doing something about what I have just said about going through personal difficulties. Although I was not in any real danger, there are plenty of children that are going through issues but cannot speak of it because of fear and cultural shackles. Within the Asian community, if young girls are displeased, there is not much that they can do. Secondly, I have an issue when teachers treat every child, regardless of their background with the same disciplining methods they would to their counterparts who do not have as strict of an upbringing or culture. Whilst British values centre on individualism and have a generally secular outlook on disciplining children, the same is not for many Asian children, specifically young girls. A training teacher once told me that an Asian female student of hers was chatting in class and was given detention as a result. The school immediately notifies a parent with a text message saying that their child will be home late from school due to detention. The student immediately cried in class and looked terrified. I asked the teacher if the school was worried about this student crying from fear from her parents being notified about detention. Although it is perfectly normal to fear your parents’ response once you are in trouble from school, to have a child show panic and fear is something that rings alarm bells. The teacher then told me that this is a normal response from the student whenever her parents are notified about his behaviour. I found this worrying and felt that not considering a child’s cultural background or familial situation when disciplining a child is something that requires knowledge on penalising students, yet protecting them from the cultural and gender-based punishments they would most likely face at home.
As more and more studies are being conducted and released on the self-harm rates within young British South Asian communities (most of which will not even be accurate due to difficulty in accessing this data directly), I think it is very important for teachers to work in protecting children from different backgrounds. Often the loneliness of growing up in a strict family and fearing the discipline of parents can only be a traumatic experience for many young South Asian girls. Whilst it is important to discipline a child as their notions of what is right and wrong is often blurred, right and wrong should not be a lesson learnt in fear.