My experience of systematic Islamophobia at school - Isha

by | Nov 10, 2021

Content note: Contains mentions of physical and verbal racist and Islamophobic abuse.  

Hi there, my name is Isha, and I would like to tell you about the impact my experience of systematic Islamophobia has had on my path to securing meaningful employment. I intend to reflect on my experience of teachers and careers advisors in schools. The aim is to shed light on the damaging effects of Islamophobia on a young person’s future and to suggest some solutions I believe will help. 

In terms of background information, you should know that I was the only ethnic minority and only Muslim in my primary and secondary school in the North East of England. I faced horrific physical and verbal racist and Islamophobic abuse by, not only students, but by teachers. This deeply affected my confidence in who I was as a person and caused major barriers when I was looking for work. This is because of the psychological effect these experiences had on my identity and self-worth. I did not believe that I belonged in society, I felt isolated, and I hated school because it was torture. I am incredibly grateful because I somehow saw the light at the end of the tunnel. My experience led me to rediscover and take strength from my faith and I always had support from my family. I will now take you through some of my personal experiences and end with an uplifting note about where I am headed in the future.  

Firstly, in primary school I was called dirty, told to go back to my own country, was called weird because I did not celebrate Christmas. I was upset by these insults and told the teachers after every instance and they merely told me to ignore the comments made. Nothing was done to make me feel comfortable in primary school. Persecution because of my faith started at the age of 6. 

Then in secondary school, there were many instances of Islamophobia I had to endure. Being called a terrorist was my new normal. Dreading coming into school every day because I was worried about my safety.  One day I had to walk out of class because of the intensity of the Islamophobic slurs made by multiple students in my class and then was comforted by my teacher with detention for disrupting the class.  I remember my heart breaking in Maths class because my best friend at the time threw something at me and said, “you terrorist people, it’s your fault our people are dying.” Again, the teacher heard it, as did the other students, and nothing was said or done. Having to be in a school where a senior teacher drew a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) for fun. The abuse turned physical as well.  Every incident was reported, and instead of acting to support me,  my teachers called me a nuisance. I recall them saying I was too sensitive and that I had to grow thick skin because it was just harmless humour that I would have to bear.  

My experience with careers advisors at secondary school was equally traumatic. I told my career advisor that I wanted to become a lawyer, she said I was not smart enough to go to university- never mind becoming a legal professional. Yet, when I asked my friends in the same class the very same career advisor encouraged them to attend university. This was the case despite the fact we were in the same class. In fact, not to brag, but my grades were very good at secondary school and I worked hard to be at the top of my class. I remember crying for three days straight and feeling so worthless after meeting with my career advisor.  

I thank God that my supportive, loving and strong family rallied around me to ensure my dreams were kept alive. It took a lot out of me to not believe my teachers and my career advisor and attempt to go to university anyway. I saw it as a sign of rebellion against all those who had doubted me. I had to research and contact professionals myself because my teachers refused to do so, and I would be the first person in my family to attend university. I sincerely believe that if I had listened to my teachers, I would be in a very different place. The double standard that I experienced at school is probably discouraging many Muslim and ethnic minority students from attaining their goals. It discouraged me, but I found a way to turn the negativity from my experience in education into motivation. Others might not be able to do this. I should not have had to do this.  

Out of motivation to prove my teachers wrong, I attended one of the top law degree programs at the University of York. My experiences at school caused an internal struggle when starting university because I felt like I did not belong there. However, when my results came back and I found out that I achieved the highest academic score in all three years of study and secured a place at the University of Oxford to study for a master’s in law, I got the external confirmation I needed that I was good enough to pursue a career at the Bar. I have had to battle through the feeling of being inadequate my whole life because of my treatment at school. In a society that already makes Muslims feel like the enemy, this hate does not need to be reinforced by teachers and career advisors.  

As I am writing this I have now graduated from Oxford. Recently, I have had the positive news of landing my dream job as a barrister. I have obtained pupillage in my first choice Chambers and this means that my career at the Bar is underway. I will be the first visibly Muslim woman there and hope that I can inspire a different perspective on what a Muslim is capable of to young people, teachers, and society.  

However, regardless of my success, schools are still being complicit in perpetuating Islamophobia. My little sister told me of a student in her class bullying her because of her faith. The lack of interference by her teachers meant that the abuse escalated from verbal to physical. This same student pulled off her hijab when she was walking to school.  Again, this was reported. Nothing was done, and the student was not held accountable. My sister felt unsafe wearing her hijab in school and proceeded to remove it. After hearing this, I dedicated myself to trying to make my town a safer, more respectful place for more generations still to come. I did this by visiting the very school responsible for my emotional scars and delivering talks to students about the misconceptions of Islam. I did this in hopes of the students and teachers there being less Islamophobic.  

However, more needs to be done to address Islamophobia in schools to make it a safe and encouraging environment that will enable Muslim students to thrive in education. All young people, regardless of their religious beliefs, should have the confidence instilled in them that they can succeed in whatever career dreams they have.  

In terms of solutions, I have the following suggestions.  

  1. Hire diverse teachers. I wish I had a teacher to confide in, that I felt heard and saw what I was going through. Diverse teachers can put things right, and students can learn to respect people of different backgrounds rather than pick on them.  
  2. Name/background blind careers advice. The double standard I experienced should not exist. Career advisors should be inspiring young people rather than crushing their dreams. They should be able to point to successful Muslims that made something out of their life and encourage young people to have the confidence that they can also succeed.  
  3. Have diverse people visit schools. I have written to every primary and secondary school in my area and my MP to arrange for me to deliver lessons on Islam, the importance of tolerance and respect, and to shed light on the damaging effects of racism and Islamophobia. There is a visible positive impact my talks have on students and teachers and I believe that this is a great solution to create a more inclusive society. It can reduce the hate Muslim students face at school. This will mean that Muslim students will leave school with confidence in themselves to attain their career aspirations. Welcoming Muslims and people of different faiths into school can fit within the RE curriculum. It can make the teaching about Islam easier for the teachers as well as benefit the Muslim youth.