Girls remain largely absent from educational discourse, eclipsed by an ongoing media and policy obsession with the ‘boys underachievement debate’. The concern is now on the lower achievement of boys, particularly African Caribbean and white working-class boys and, more recently, in the wake of the Trojan Horse fiasco in Birmingham, the threat of Islamic extremism among Muslim boys. The ‘post feminist’ complacency that there has been an overall improvement in the performance of girls in schools, which is seen at the expense of boys, masks the real educational difficulties faced by girls from working-class minority ethnic backgrounds. The only policy agenda which specifically acknowledges migrant minority ethnic girls is steeped in a narrow racialised Islamophobic preoccupation with Muslim parental cultural restrictions (such as wearing the veil) and ‘sensationalised ‘ ethno-religious transgressions such as forced marriage and FGM (Female Genital Mutilation).
The EU research project[i] on young migrant women, which I have been involved with tells a different story of the intersectionality of gender, race, class, religion and sexuality that moves us beyond the pathology of black, migrant and in particular Muslim girls as the victims of backward, barbaric religious and cultural practice. For working class young women from countries as diverse as Somalia, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan education was seen as a means of personal transformation and belonging in a world where they had few social and economic choices. However access to education and thriving in a school was not experienced as a level playing field for the young women. The girls’ ability to survive and flourish depended on their resilience and ability to negotiate the harsh educational terrain of urban inner city schools.
The girls ability to overcome everyday issues such as parental ill health and depression, poverty, childcare and housework while living under familial restrictions and sexual surveillance depended on the schools’ ability to mediate and support them. The young women suffered surprisingly high rates of psychological stress and reported many disturbing cases of domestic abuse and attempted suicide. This constant state of ‘debility’ could be managed if there was access to good school support such as counsellors and educational welfare officers. However the support was often chaotic and came down to the help of an approachable sympathetic teacher. The mainly white teachers were not equipped through their training to deal with the specificity of cultural, religious and social trauma outside of the dominant racist Islamophobic policy frame of ‘saving’ the girls from gendered risk through invoking the ‘model’ liberated (white) western female student.
The young women also voiced great disappointment in the schools inability to contain the racial and sexual bullying that was rife between and among different competing ethnic migrant groups, including but not only white groups. Much of the bullying was sexual and gendered, perpetrated by boys from similar ethnic backgrounds as the young women.It was evident that skin colour was an important trigger for bullying and the girls talked about being “cussed” for being ‘blick’ which means darker than black. There were other kinds of bodily surveillance aimed at regulating the young women’s bodies. This came not only from the teachers who monitored the their behaviour, dress and in particular the wearing of the veil, but also by some parents and brothers from patriarchal and religious British white, black, South Asian and Muslim communities who wished to control the young women’s emerging sexuality.
In conclusion the girls struggled to negotiate the macro sexist and racist Islamophobic religious regulatory discourses that framed their experiences at the micro level of the school and classroom. In our research we found ‘schools do make a difference’ as leadership was a crucial factor in establishing a sound inclusive and antiracist vision. In the case of one school the Head’s decision to have a multicultural and a gendered religiously respectful approach enabled a whole school ethos where, as one girl declared, “everything is possible”. To truly decolonise our educational spaces, educators need to engage in the radical postcolonial, pedagogic project of an anti-racist, feminist and multicultural praxis that is cognisant of class privilege in order to challenge the powerful interlocking hegemonic discourses of race, class, gender, sexuality and religion that circulate in our educational institutions.
[i] 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: Community Action ( 2010—2011).