Religious and Cultural Sensitivity, Part 2

This follows on from a previous post in November 2011. If you haven’t already done so, I would politely recommend reading that before you read this one. But if, like me, you like a short cut, here’s a heavily abridged version of the story so far…

– I volunteered to take part in a charitable scheme where law firms send their lawyers into local comprehensive schools to discuss legal issues with GCSE students – anything from the rule of law, to human rights, to police powers, to employment rights, to intellectual property.

– As well as getting the pupils to think about legal issues affecting them (rights and responsibilities), the scheme tends to focus on schools in deprived areas in order to raise aspiration levels amongst pupils who might not necessarily be considering a legal career.

– Before taking part in the scheme we received some training from the charity so we would know what to expect in the sessions. It was all helpful stuff but I took exception to the phrase in one of the training slides, “It is important to be sensitive regarding religious and cultural differences”.

– I was worried we were being asked to throttle back the quality of a discussion based on the supposed religion or culture of the pupils. Depriving them of a proper conversation on core legal issues such as (their) human rights troubled me because of the logical inference: once you accept that certain children are entitled to a less than full quality discussion about human rights, you are staring over the precipice in accepting they are entitled to less than full quality human rights.

The scheme finished a few weeks ago and I wanted to share some of the experiences, which have in the main been very positive (and probably more positive than I was expecting).

The school we were attached to was in Tower Hamlets and I understand the vast majority of the pupils are Bangladeshi or Pakistani. I would estimate that 95 to 98% of the girls were veiled (but with their faces showing).

Despite my major concern that we had been given a coded message – intentionally or unintentionally – to swerve thorny issues, I’m glad to report I didn’t feel pressured at any point to prune back the discussions with the pupils.

I was pleasantly surprised during the very first session. As part of one of the exercises I had to read out a number of statements for the pupils to agree or disagree with, including one on sex: “Everyone should be free to have a sexual relationship with whoever they want, including someone of the same sex”.

I readily admit I was expecting plenty of giggling. There was virtually none.

I readily admit I was expecting some objection to same-sex relationships. There was none.

I readily admit I was expecting to hear a reference to the Koran. There wasn’t one.

The pupils just weren’t boverred about same-sex relationships. And in case you were wondering, no, there wasn’t an imam lurking in the background; just a teacher who was happily filling in his register on the computer and attending to whatever bits of admin teachers generally do when they’re relieved of the burden of dealing with their pupils for fifty precious minutes.

I was very impressed with my young charges – not only at the maturity they displayed in dealing with the topic of sex generally, but same-sex sex at that. When I compare their attitudes to mine at a similar age, it puts me to shame.

Re-Enlightenment’s pre-conceptions 0-1 Pupils.

As the discussions developed during that first session and the subsequent weeks, something else impressed me: there was an almost instinctive grasp of JS Mill’s harm principle, even though this concept was never mentioned by name. Time after time, when the pupils were given a statement or a set of circumstances to consider, their thinking was heavily determined by what, if any, effect there might be on others. Hence, on this basis, two consenting adults in a same-sex relationship posed no problem for the pupils’ morality. At times the pupils would not articulate themselves particularly clearly – unfortunately the standard of English was often poor – but I felt privileged and encouraged to witness what seemed to be an embedded morality that was coming to the surface. Quite inspiring.

There was the odd bumpy moment. As part of the module on discrimination, for example, we discussed a hypothetical case study involving a delivery company and its uniform policy.

One of the drivers in our case study was refusing to wear a cap for religious reasons and it was immediately clear from the reaction of the pupils that this reason, in and of itself, constituted a good enough reason to warrant a personal exemption from the uniform policy.

I am certainly not opposed to all forms of religious dress in the workplace but I wanted to encourage the pupils to reanalyse their instinctive conclusion on religious exemptions to uniforms and the like, so I posed the question, “What if the company has one hundred drivers, and all those drivers each has a different religion or denomination, each with its own unique rules about clothes?” The penny seemed to drop and one of the pupils remarked that maybe, sometimes, it might be helpful for the same rules to apply to everyone.

And a word on the veil. Outside of the sessions I managed to get talking to one of the female teaching assistants, who told me that years and years ago there would only be a handful of children wearing one whereas now the position had been completely reversed: only a handful are now unveiled. Being personally opposed to the veil I found that depressing, but there was a ray of hope – of sorts.

The teaching assistant explained what happens when the pupils go on school trips. Once the coach leaves the M25, many (though not all) of the veils are removed, and the school sees this as a decision purely for the pupils. It is not ‘reported’ to the parents and quite right, too.

I recently witnessed a pleasant old lady passing her time by generously throwing bits of bread into a canal – even though there was not one duck or swan as far as the eye could see. It literally put a smile on my face (it still does, two weeks later), and I imagine witnessing these girls voluntarily physically secularising themselves on one of their decadent road trips would top that. Maybe they even crack open the chocolate liqueurs!

But there was a darker side to this. It seems that when the school trips are in London, especially in an area reasonably close to Tower Hamlets, the veils tend to stay on. Apparently the girls feel they are still under the ‘jurisdiction’ of Tower Hamlets.

Am I the only one that finds that creepy?

I do have to ask myself what stops the girls removing their headscarves on school premises after their parents have dropped them off or after they have walked to school themselves.

It’s clear from my discussion with the teaching assistant that the pupils who choose to remove the headscarf don’t care for the reaction or disapproval of their teachers or their fellow pupils, because they happily relieve themselves of this garb in full view of them on the school trips. So who or what coerces them to regulate their clothing choices at school?

It’s upsetting the girls don’t feel their school is a safe enough sanctuary in which to remove an unwanted item of clothing. I don’t think it’s pressure from, or the fault of, the school, because despite the prevalence of headscarves the institution itself actually seemed reasonably secular: it is not a faith school and this particular teaching assistant was rather proud that some of her girls were choosing to remove their headscarves (and she didn’t seem nervous telling me about it). In the event of a conflict between a girl and a parent on this, she told me, the school would support the girl every time.

Maybe it really is the intimidation factor of being physically within Tower Hamlets, and maybe it’s also because the school’s policy seems to be one of initial silence and neutrality, followed by supporting the girls when things get tricky, rather than actively addressing the headscarf issue and even positively telling the girls they’re entitled to make their own choices. But at least the school is not adding to the problem.

I am so happy to have taken part in this scheme because I feel the pupils have developed their understanding of important legal issues that affect their lives, and as a result many of them are interested in law as a career. It has given me some optimism on some of the issues I feel strongly about, although I have kept my personal opinions to myself at all times.

Some time ago a colleague asked me why I was so interested in secularism and human rights, and whether I had had my own rights infringed in the past. I told her that I hadn’t, and that I just didn’t like to see others having theirs infringed. It was an odd (and revealing) assumption to make: that only once you suffer harm yourself can you speak out and take action.

Well, I’m a man who has only ever had sex with women, but I don’t want homosexuals to be discriminated against; I don’t kneel on the floor and pray towards Mecca or anywhere else, but I want Muslims to enjoy the same legal rights that I do; unlike Michael Jackson I have been white all my life, but I still want racial equality; and I don’t have a vagina but I defend the rights of those who do.

Maybe that makes me odd. I like to think it makes me normal. I like to think it makes me human.