Laylah Hussain, in the Times (£), recalls her time in an Islamic school near Nottingham, where she was sent aged 11:
[M]y mother sought to protect me from the secular culture she thought could ruin my education and prospects. She is a deeply spiritual woman and wanted me to have an Islamic education, not based upon her own adaptable, tolerant South Asian faith but on the literalist Saudi Arabian Salafism she saw preached on Islamic TV channels, which presents itself as “pure”. She wanted me to become an alima, an Islamic scholar. There was kudos in having such a child, akin to how old Italian families were proud if their son became a priest. I was only 11 years old when she sent me to an Islamic boarding school, recommended by family friends, 120 miles away. My mum kept saying I would become the jewel in her crown. I was packed off with kisses, lots of sweets and bottles of Coke, treated as special in a way that enraged my young siblings.
The Jamia Al-Hudaa school is on top of a hill overlooking Nottingham, although in the following five years I would not visit the city except to see a dentist or doctor. It is a big crumbling Victorian place, a former sanatorium with peeling paint and coarse carpets. It contained 180 girls, most, like me, of Pakistani descent.
Our school principal was a man. We and the all-female teachers veiled our faces when he addressed us. His wife, the head teacher, was a stern, tall woman who floated silently about, seemingly trying to catch us breaking a rule. Our uniform was a floor-length maroon jilbaab and we had to keep our heads covered with a black hijab everywhere except the residential corridors and our bedrooms. I’d never worn Islamic dress before: I’d been going through a goth/skater girl phase back home.
I was so unhappy, for the first year I tried everything I could to get expelled: I skipped lessons, wouldn’t do my homework, argued, made too much noise. But my teachers liked me. I was smart and, because I have a huge hunger for learning, listened in class.
The curriculum was far from that of an ordinary British school. It promises “a new identity which will keep them attached to their Islamic values”. In our first year we learnt Arabic, the medium in which “Islamic sciences” are taught. These include Islamic law, Islamic history, Koranic recitation, Koranic interpretation, the sayings of Muhammad (hadith), a subject dedicated to explaining how Islamic scholars compiled the sayings of Muhammad (usool al-hadith). On top of that we prayed five times a day; sometimes, depending on the time of sunrise, as early as 4am.
The school included the basics of the national curriculum. Besides two hours a day of Arabic, we studied maths, English, RE and ICT (computer technology). We learnt science but without any discussion of evolution, which I didn’t learn until long after I left the school. Pakistani children took Urdu and older girls were offered textiles.
The school wanted to get our GCSEs out of the way as early as possible so we could focus on our intensive Islamic studies. I took Maths, Arabic and Urdu GCSE. I got a B in maths – I think I would have done better later on, but there was no chance of a retake. I failed ICT and couldn’t retake that either. Once you sat the exam, the subject ended.
I don’t remember being taught European history. I left school not knowing about the world wars; I could not point to Pakistan on a map. We were taught Islamic history, which I know not to be history at all, but the stories of prophets and of Muhammad compiled from oral tradition. We were not taught how and why historians collect data: I believed oral tradition was the best source. Islamic law is a detailed study of Sharia, which provides rules to govern every minute detail of your life. I learnt, for example, that you must always step into the lavatory with your left foot first and eat with your right hand....
There was no sense that we would ever go out into wider British society; we would live our entire lives within a Muslim bubble. Study of Islamic law was to ensure that we would conduct our lives through Sharia courts: after all, Sharia is God’s word; British justice is just the word of man. And we were certainly not equipped for careers, because the Islamic curriculum has no real academic merit. But even as alimas we could not earn a living as male scholars can, working for Sharia councils as judges, or as imams. Women can only teach children or follow Sharia in their daily lives.
After expulsion from the school, and a year spent in another Islamic school in Pakistan - less strict, in fact, than the British school - she became "more bigoted" than ever, wearing the veil, full of self-righteousness.
Then, right at the end of my year in Pakistan, my sister called me up at 11pm and said Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had come out. She’d borrowed a car and was going to buy a copy. Would I like to come? I couldn’t resist and all the way home on the plane I read the book, feeling full of my old joy, some of my religious zeal ebbing away.
When we touched down in Britain I removed my veil at the airport and never wore it again. I felt a surge of doubt about my faith. But at home, as an alima, I was expected to be more Muslim than anyone else. After all my religious schooling, people assumed I would pray regularly, wear a jilbaab and not listen to music. I felt I was placed on a pedestal and should never dare to come down.
But I had to dare – I was being strangled up there. I had no sense of myself, no idea where I belonged. I did not feel Pakistani, British or Muslim any more. The faith that shackled me began to fall away as I decided to take control of my own life and identity.
I realised the vast holes in my education. What I had learnt in Islamic school was not useful unless I wanted to follow Islamic moral codes. I know I am not unintelligent, but realising I was ignorant of basic history and science made me feel ashamed.
So I started to read. First, at my local library, I tackled Darwinism. I had been taught this was a lie created by scientists and in Pakistan I’d read Adnan Oktar, an Islamic creationist who believes Darwinism is the root cause of fascism. But when I opened the Encyclopaedia Britannica to read a fluid description of man’s ascent, I was filled with awe.
I decided to take A levels, but I was not able to do maths or science because it was too long after I’d done my GCSE. I settled for English, sociology and psychology, and pored myself into my studies, reading voraciously to teach myself the basics of British history. I won a place at Brunel University to study English and there my mind took flight. I’d no idea atheists existed until I discovered Richard Dawkins. I remember reading The God Delusion on the Tube wearing a headscarf and jilbaab, Muslim women sitting opposite giving me strange looks. Here, for the first time since primary school, I made friends with non-Muslims. Because I felt I had so much to prove, I worked hard and got a first.
I have lost my faith entirely now....
To be an apostate carries a death sentence in some countries. Here in Britain, many ex-Muslims are harassed and threatened. But I feel it is my duty to speak out about the private Islamic school system that ruined my education and restricted my future. I cannot understand why the British government allows girls of 11 to be put into schools that set them on a course of separation from mainstream society, to live according to Sharia principles, which can discriminate against them in divorce, inheritance and legal testimony. Because my school was private it did not face the same scrutiny from Ofsted.
It is assumed that girls from my background are happy to be controlled by religious institutions. Ofsted’s guidelines for inspecting faith schools stress that the hijab should not be seen as a symbol of oppression, but as an expression of female modesty. As a woman who felt pressure to wear it, I disagree. Although some women do wear it out of choice, this is not true for girls for whom modesty is part of the school rules.
Children should not be seen only as extensions of their family and faith, but as citizens with the right to integrate and gain a full education. This is also true for children of Christian, Jewish or Hindu parents who are placed in faith schools. How can we expect young people to become free-thinking citizens, for those of faith and non-faith to live side by side, if they are isolated from their peers and leave school prejudiced against other faiths?
A brave and important article.
"I cannot understand why the British government allows girls of 11 to be put into schools that set them on a course of separation from mainstream society, to live according to Sharia principles, which can discriminate against them in divorce, inheritance and legal testimony." Me neither.
It's understandable, if perhaps disappointing, that Layla Hussein is in fact a pseudonym.