by Heidi Safia Mirza

With all folks say in the news, you wonder if people can see beyond your headscarf to who you really are, instead of being blinded by their fear and the misperceptions of their own minds.’ – Michelle Obama, addressing students at Mulberry Girls School

On a sunny day in June Michelle Obama is visiting the flagship Mulberry girls’ school in Tower Hamlets, the poorest borough in London, to spark off her global campaign to improve girls’ education. ‘Let Girls Learn’ aims to break down barriers that leave 62 million girls in the world still deprived of basic education.  Michelle Obama’s inspirational message to the majority Muslim girls, sitting in their bright sea of mulberry coloured headscarves, is this: despite gender deprivation and attitudes, they too can achieve their dreams through academic success, confidence and fortitude. But the road to understanding the complexities of Muslim girls’ education in Britain requires a sophisticated examination of the way policy and practice unthinkingly interact with gender, social, cultural and religious difference.

In February this year three British-born Muslim teenage girls, Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana, absconded from Mulberry’s neighbourhood school, Bethnal Green Academy. They secretly travelled to Syria to join ISIS,  groomed through social media, drawn by the excitement, romance and  promise of immortality as ‘mothers’ of  a new Islamic caliphate [i].  In the wake of the high profile and sensationalist coverage of their ‘radicalisation’, powerful, unrestrained Islamophobic discourses of risk, surveillance and fear freely circulate in our educational spaces. We are now openly being told Muslim girls are both ‘dangerous’ and ‘in danger’ in British schools. Muslim young women are seen as a potentially threatening religious/racialised group in the professional, public and political imagination. This marks a distinct departure from the benign cultural/ethnic categorisation of Pakistani and Bangladeshi girls that has long been the dominant tradition in multicultural educational research.  So what are the consequences of such heightened negative attention on Muslim girls, and how do racism, religion, sexuality and gender intersect to impact on their well-being and life chances?


Dangerous or Overlooked Muslim Girls?

In our research project [ii] we found Muslim girls in schools were simultaneously constructed as both highly ‘visible’ raced subjects and yet also ‘invisible’ and overlooked gendered subjects.  Criminalised and demonised as the new female folk devils, young Muslim women, far from being ‘dangerous’, are actually ‘in danger’ of falling between the cracks of virulent raced and gendered Islamophobic debates that play out in the everyday microcosms of our multicultural British schools.

Michelle Obama at girls schoolThey remain largely absent from mainstream education speak, eclipsed by an ongoing media and policy obsession with the ‘boys underachievement debate’. Policies are naturally aimed at the crisis of masculinity and disaffection for Black boys, alienation and separatism for Muslim boys, and deficit whiteness and low self-esteem for White working-class boys. Girls have been largely overlooked in the ‘post-feminist’ complacency that there has been an overall improvement in their educational performance — which of course is always seen at the expense of boys.  However, such deeply gendered discourses mask the real educational difficulties faced by girls from white working-class, Muslim, black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

The only official government educational policy we found for Muslim girls was steeped in a narrow, racialised preoccupation with Muslim parental cultural restrictions (such as wearing the veil or sex segregation) and a sensationalised political focus on ‘barbaric’ ethno-religious transgressions, such as forced marriage and FGM (female genital mutilation). While educational policy must address the human rights violations of young women’s bodily rights, it is also crucial that policy perspectives move beyond stereotypical views that gendered violence is an issue in some communities and not others. White pupils also suffer from violence and familial abuses, but unlike Muslim girls, these are not seen as a cultural matter but as a social issue. What we are witnessing here is the way in which young Muslim women are produced as abject, voiceless victims of their cultures and thus open to state surveillance in terms of cultural practice, but yet are absent from the mainstream policy discourse which should protect them as equal citizens.

Muslim Female Empowerment?

We found teachers were often not equipped to deal with the girls’ cultural, religious and social traumas without judging this against the dominant racist Islamophobic policy frame.The school’s production of the compliant ‘model Muslim female student’ drew on the ‘liberated (White) western female student’, and appeared to be a response to the heroic Western need to ‘save’ the young women from their backward cultural and religious practices. Here young Muslim women seen to be at risk of heightened sexual regulation from their family and community would be actively encouraged to draw on Western ideals of  post-feminist female ‘empowerment’ and neo-liberal values to inspire their journey into educational uplift, which would raise them out of their plight [iii].  However, it is now argued that the pervasive post-feminist ideology [iv],with its high-visibility ‘have it all’ tropes of freedom and equality, far from being liberating represents a new seductive ‘sexual contract’ for this generation of young women. Skilfully re-securing male power, this new sexual contract recasts young women as the ideal ‘docile subjects’ through the lure of popular culture and their own desire for the hope of material success, choice and freedom.

Thus while the Muslim girls appeared to benefit positively from the school’s ‘gender equality’ approach, this approach also ironically produced subtle forms of ‘gender-friendly’ self-regulation among the young women.The working-class young Muslim women were thus brought into the trajectory of middle-class neo-liberal individualism through their own newfound gendered and classed desires, aspirations, and values for success, which without financial and cultural resources was not often personally sustainable beyond the ‘safe haven’ of the school gates [v].

There was often little understanding or respect for the girls’ faith and religious expression of humility and honour (izzat) in their choice of dress, or for their agency and self-determination in their own negotiated educational paths to empowerment.Muslim young women were often subject to teachers’ expectations about what it means to be a ‘true’ and ‘good’ Muslim girl, which is particularly manifested through bodily regulation and dress. At the heart of such assumptions lies a preoccupation with the symbolic meaning of the headscarf. While wearing the headscarf was reluctantly accepted by many teachers as ‘a given’ in a multicultural school context, the young women recounted many negative experiences linked to wearing religious dress. In these cases the headscarf was not taken seriously,seen as merely an outward display of imposed necessary religiosity — a facade behind which the girls hide their ‘true self’. For example, one teacher told the girls they could secretly take it off on a hot day as their parents were not looking.  It was as if, given the opportunity, the girls would relinquish the burden and ‘take it off’.


Conclusion: ‘Everything is Possible!’

For Muslim girls in Britain, accessing opportunities in education and thriving in school is not a level playing field. Among the girls in our study, their ability to overcome parental and familial restrictions, peer bullying, school regulation and the intrusions of anti-terrorist state surveillance depended on their resilience and ability to negotiate the wider Islamophobic climate that framed their experiences at the everyday micro level of the school.  Many young women in our study suffered surprisingly high rates of psychological stress and reported many disturbing cases of depression and attempted suicide.  Young Muslim women, like the three teenage girls from Tower Hamlets, and now the young mothers from Bradford, that upped sticks of a seemingly comfortable life in Britain to travel to war-torn Syria are at one and the same time invisible and culturally ‘in danger’ as women, and yet visibly ‘dangerous’ racialised and potentially radicalised Muslims. In this media and policy gap, we need to carefully read between the lines of Facebook and Twitter commentary and listen to their stories of desire for respect, belonging, and the irresistible lure of a collective vision for a utopian future.

As a black woman from the harsh Chicago East Side, Michelle Obama empathises with the young Muslim women at Mulberry. In her emotional address, her voice breaks with a message: ‘With all folks say in the news, you wonder if people can see beyond your headscarf to who you really are, instead of being blinded by their fear and the misperceptions of their own minds’.

Our research showed schools can and do  make a positive contribution in girls’ lives, as can be seen through people like Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai — role models who inspire a cause and are committed to making a difference. But in our own British backyard we also need to make a difference. Mulberry Girls School is an exemplar of a school that does just that, with strong inclusive leadership and an accepting multicultural ethos that everyone buys into, and where, as one Muslim girl optimistically declared…’everything is possible’.

[i] Hoyle, Caroline, Bradford, Alexandra, Frenett, Ross (2015). Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS. Institute of Strategic Dialogue (accessed 5 May 2015).

[ii] The project, ‘Young Migrant Women in Secondary Education—Promoting integration and mutual understanding through dialogue and exchange’, was funded by European Commission European Fund for the Integration of Third-country Nationals: For the full report see Mirza, Heidi Safia, Meetoo, Veena and Litster, Jenny (2011). ‘Young, Female and Migrant: Gender, Class and Racial Identity in Multicultural Britain’. In Young Migrant Women in Secondary Education: Promoting Integration and Mutual Understanding through Dialogue and Exchange. Nicosia:University of Nicosia Press.

[iii] For a more extended discussion see: Mirza, Heidi Safia, and Meetoo, Veena( 2014).  ‘Gendered surveillance and the social construction young Muslim women in schools’, in K. Bhopal, and U. Maylor (Eds.), Educational inequalities: difference and diversity in schools and higher education. London : Routledge.

 McRobbie, Angela (2007). Top Girls? Young women and the post-feminist sexual contract. Cultural Studies, 21:4-5,718-737, DOI:10.1080/09502380701279044

Research shows many Muslim young women are doing well at school and going to university (see Bagguley, Paul and Hussain, Yasmin (2014). Negotiating mobility: South Asian women in higher education. Sociology 1-17). However, they are more likely  to face disproportionate disadvantages in the world of work whatever their qualifications: see ‘British Muslim women 71% more likely to be unemployed due to workplace discrimination April 15 2015’, (accessed  5 May 2015)

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.

Heidi Safia Mirza is Professor of Race, Faith and Culture at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, and Professor Emerita in Equalities Studies at the UCL Institute of Education.  She is known for her pioneering research on race, gender and identity in education and has an international reputation for championing equality and human rights for women and young people through educational reform. As one of the first female professors of colour in UK she was awarded the prestigious Eight Women of Colour Awards in 2014. She is author of several best-selling books, including Young Female and Black, which was voted in the BERA top 40 most influential educational studies in Britain.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam and edited by  Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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