By: Toslima Khatun
The seven hours that most children up to the age of 16 spend in school usually shape who they are or makes up a part of their identity going forward in their adult life. Teachers are supposed to be considered in loco parentis and for the most part this is true. You make sure your students are happy, fed, warm, learning and safe. Since turning 18 I have gradually worked my way up to a position to be able to teach as I do now to both secondary school students and some ad hoc classes for university students too. What has become glaringly clear through my 6 years of this process is that there is a basic disadvantage that students come to school with, when they are taught from their home life that the women in their life (whether it be their mothers, sisters, both or someone else) are automatically optional voices to be heeded when they feel like it. This is regardless of socio-economic, and religious backgrounds.
When they come to school and are confronted with someone as little, brown and young as me I have realised that there is a growing disparity in how my students learn depending on how willing they are to listen to me. Whether this is based on race or gender the student is usually adrift within a few lessons – especially as they get older and are given more autonomy. Whilst this is true of female students too, the overwhelming majority of this type of issue applies to my male students who listen to me in order to respond, not to hear. I have had 13-year olds not listen to me and have me repeat answers 3 or 4 times until a male teacher interjected desperately to get them to see what was happening. Almost verbatim, or instead they will think it is appropriate to explain a topic to me on the most basic level in an effort to teach me that I am wasting their time, and huff and puss if I interject with the details they miss when they finish to prove that they still have a ways to go. On the other side of the spectrum I have had undergraduate students trample over other people’s items during exams thinking it was humorous to make sure I saw them do it because I had cautioned them to use to correct entrance in order to respect other students. In both situations when I then pointed out to the students that their behaviour was typically misogynistic, I was accused of sexism laughingly or brushed off completely.
Having spoken to other female teachers of colour I was alarmed to realise that this was a common thread, regardless of religion or country. One other South Asian teacher had once told me that when an Arab parent had been called in to school due to the unruly behaviour of her child, the teacher was promptly told that ‘back home’ she would be considered no more than a servant or slave and that she should keep her opinions to herself. There is almost no winning in this situation unless we as a society- regardless of ethnicity – are not willing to see that students who are not taught at home to heed what they are told in terms of advice regardless of gender will not adapt well to their school and later work environments. Bell Hooks in her book Teaching to Transgress, talks about how men of colour (in her essay specifically black men but I would like to broaden this for my own writing to all) see themselves as inherently disenfranchised to the point that they cannot appreciate that the women of their society can be just as hindered by their inherent prejudices if they allow them to fester or do not work against them. I agree that this is a major stumbling block for both myself and a lot of my female students. This is foremost a problem with young students.
When I speak to my students, they freely admit that in the environments that they are from outside of school women are seen as largely second-class citizens in comparison to the men in their life. They somehow manage to say this a lot of the time like the fact that they are admitting this makes them worthy of a prize, suggesting that they are used to being rewarded for the bare minimum. It is then young men like these who enter university and specifically decided to opt for male teachers in the search for any queries that they have instead of female ones, even if they are better qualified or in higher positions. The mentality in, and of itself, hinders progress. All of this is something that I have seen first-hand and struggled with, as have many other female teachers. It has to start at home, and even if it is at school, much earlier so that by the time children start to notice differences in behaviours and expectations in genders they are able to see the difference without compounding them.
I say this explicitly because I had the pleasure of teaching a school of all boys this year where every single one of my students came from an orthodox Christian background. The reason I mention the background is that whilst the class was ethnically diverse (almost half the students where people of colour), it was one of the first times that they had clearly been brought face to face with a young female Muslim before. I was new and strange to them, but they were too polite and well raised to make that clear. Their lack of exposure to someone like me meant that they ironically came to me without the prejudices one would imagine and indeed, any that I had faced with other students. It was refreshing and heart-warming since my students were between 13-14 years old, and they spoke frankly about what they had learnt about Islam, and they made themselves extra aware of Ramadan when they figured out I was fasting. In turn they were able to ask me any and all of the questions they had during the end of the class without a single incidence of offence and they were also impressively receptive to constructive advice and new ideas. The simple shift was that they were willing to learn. I realised with almost all of my students that they came from homes where the parenting was done as a team, and they spoke about their parents having discussions with them about gender issues such as the wage gap, and interestingly they were hugely aware of issues of Islamophobia and racism and seemed outraged whenever I asked their opinion about it. I have literally only had to check the behaviour of two students out of the entire group in terms of following the instructions I set out, and whilst one immediately behaved, the second only carried on when he was led to believe that he was justified by another teacher (but that’s an article for another day). Which is a big step for the movement towards equality in the first place. I include this as testament that home life does matter, schools can only do so much.
Toslima is now a second year PhD student at SOAS in London. Her research focuses on the medieval trading routes and their socio-political longue duree between the Middle East and the Mediterranean trade and the Indian Ocean. In her spare time, she enjoys travelling through Europe and the Middle East and is an avid reader.