By Suma Din
Suma Din shares her experiences as a Muslim mother in the state school system and describes what inspired her book Muslim Mothers and their Children’s Schooling – a study that gives voice to more than fifty women from a wide range of African, Arab and Asian backgrounds and all social classes, some of them immigrants but many born in the UK.
Could you tell us a little about your professional background?
I read English Language and Literature at UCL and went on to do a PGCE at the IOE, after which I combined ESOL teaching and writing educational books and resources across the humanities curriculum. I moved into Adult Education and worked in the Family Learning sector, running courses for parents to achieve national literacy or ESOL qualifications as well as courses that helped them support their children’s literacy learning at school. Alongside writing and teaching, I’ve always been heavily involved with local voluntary roles such as being a primary school governor and with interfaith work.
What inspired your book?
There were several stimuli that inspired this book, which were equally important, and I outline these in the book’s preface. Of those, the two following areas in particular stand out.
Having been involved with my children’s schools, and as a parent-governor, I appreciate the partnership between the home and school that’s required for the whole school community to progress. However, there are often gaps in this relationship, and in some cases, there is no partnership at all. While there is a body of research on the ways minority parents are interacting with their children’s schooling, I found the experiences of Muslim mothers was submerged within the general narrative of parents, rather than specifically looking at their position. Given that Muslim children constitute the largest faith minority presence of 8.1% in state schools in England and Wales (Sundas, 2015), it seemed only logical to share their mothers’ perspectives on education and their contemporary experiences.
At the same time, out in the public domain, Muslim mothers receive a disproportionate amount of negative press. They are either situated as mothers of ‘jihadi-brides’ or ‘terrorist sons’, or oppressed victims of forced marriages, honour killings or FGM. As I state in the book, these acute problems require attention and robust challenging – but these are not the only lens through which this section of society should be viewed. Only seeing Muslim mothers in these ways does little to encourage better relations between students, staff and parents. Challenging these essentialized views was another incentive to interview mothers and hear what they had to say. When given the opportunity to define themselves, they showed, for example, how they wanted to correct misconceptions about their essentialized public image and explain who they really are and how they would like to be understood. This commonality was found across different ethnic, educational and socio-economic backgrounds.
‘I’m a Muslim woman and a Somali mother so my main identity is a Muslim woman/mother. This covers everything – my religion is a way of life, so, if I want to be a good citizen, mother, woman, I have to be a good Muslim…that’s what I think. That’s my identity.’
– Hibaaq (Chapter 4, p. 51)
‘It’s that need to show, that I’m just a parent and that we’re not all the same, and perhaps undo some of the stereotypes.’
– Tahira (Chapter 4, p. 56)
As well as these reasons, the questions I was asked when delivering Islam & Cultural Awareness CPD to colleagues clearly indicated there were many misconceptions, for example around how Muslims view school festivals, education and the position of women in the family. One mother in the study illustrates the complexity in her narrative about playground dynamics and contemporary politics. She relates how, during the week the law against forced marriage was being passed, she was asked by another parent she was friendly with: ‘How d’you feel about your forced marriage?’ Their ensuing conversation in Chapter 5, titled ‘Relationships’, demonstrates the need for far more communication about everyday assumptions.
What do you hope readers will learn having read it?
I hope the narratives from the data help readers feel more confident about recognizing the plurality of Muslim families. A small study like this is a microcosm of the diversity among parents from a range of backgrounds. For instance, some participants were very critical about Muslim mothers in their own community; some questioned mosque education teaching styles and timings; others were reflective about their parent’s choices for their own education. This is just some of the variety readers will encounter.
I would like this book to be an introduction to more dialogue between practitioners and parents generally, and Muslim mothers in particular. ‘I didn’t ask as I don’t want to offend’ is a comment I’ve come across regularly when interacting with teachers and other professionals. I hope readers will find some answers to those unspoken questions. As one mother in the study reflected:
‘Every day in the staff room they bring the METRO in and the first page is someone did something. When the staff read this, the only thing they think is it’s not a good religion. Even though they know us as staff, as good, but they get bombarded with the negative. Even for us, as Muslims, what can we say? They never ask directly, but you can see in their eyes and I volunteer and say ‘this is not Islam’. When they have questions, I will go and explain, it’s part of my job’.
– Zarah, parent adviser (Chapter 7, p.114)
Ultimately, hearing mothers’ narratives at a time when there are loud voices of separation and division to compete with, should contribute to a more nuanced perspective for practitioners.
Reference: Ali, Sundas et. al. (2015) British Muslims in Number: A demographic, socio-economic and health profile of Muslims in Britain drawing on the 2011 Census. London. Muslim Council of Britain.