Behind the Hijab: Reflections on Working at an Islamic School From a Teacher Raised as a Catholic

Several years ago, I had the good fortune of being employed as an art teacher at an Islamic school. It wasn’t an experience I actively tried to have, rather I took the opportunity out of necessity. I was unemployed and needed a means of paying the bills which translated into accepting any job interview my employment agency offered. It turned out to be one of the most valuable and enriching life experiences I’ve ever had.

I have not obtained consent from individuals to share specific stories, so in order to maintain confidentially I shall focus on my journey in general terms. The aim of doing so is to break down cultural barriers in the hope that my experience and learnings are of benefit to others.

The interview occurred during a Melbourne heatwave. As per the agency’s instructions, I dressed in clothes that covered me head to toe, including a scarf wrapped around my head, hijab style – I relied upon YouTube tutorials to do this. Naively, apart from my attire, I approached the interview like all others and promptly offered my hand to give a welcome shake to the gentleman who ushered me into interview room. My first lesson: in Islamic communities women don’t shake men’s hands. To ease the tension of my faux pas a female interviewer stepped forward to grasp my hand that was dangling awkwardly in mid air. Somehow, I still got offered the six month position, and in time, realised that Muslim women’s empathy and capacity to accomodate the emotional needs of others is very high.

My whole experience prompted me to look beyond the mindset I was raised with so as I could see the world through a broader scope, a scope that went beyond surface level tolerance of other religions. I was raised a Catholic and with this I had a very western view of life, values, expectations, and assumptions. In other words, I had prejudices. If I were to be completely honest, up until that point, I viewed Muslims as being “others”, not of “my kind”, and dare I say it, “inferiors”. I am now eternally grateful for being humbled by being forced to confront my erroneous attitudes.

I was very guarded when I first began my contract. I was going there to do a job and get paid. End of story. But when does that ever really happen, especially in a school setting? Teaching involves interactions, and interactions lead to bonds being formed and relations developing despite anyone’s best intentions of remaining autonomous.

The first couple of weeks were especially challenging. Not only was there a heatwave, the school was an hour and a half away from home and my car’s air conditioning was broken and I didn’t have the funds to get it fixed. I dressed skimpily to accomodate for the weather then put on coverings in a back street before entering the school grounds. On a personal level, I felt enormous pangs of guilt about abandoning my thirteen year old son at 6:30am every morning. He had just began his secondary education at new school and had to get himself up and to the bus stop without my support. To top it all off, I was going through health challenges and was mourning of the loss of a romantic relationship. I cried to and from work many days. Some days my eyes were still red as I passed through the electronic gates at the front of the school. It took all the strength I could muster to pull myself together and put on my professional teaching persona. I had no allies in this place, no friend to whinge to or unload my burdens onto like at previous employments. The first few weeks were tough, really tough, but that changed as the veil of otherness dissipated and familiarity bred connection.

Each day I turned up to work felt like I was entering into a different world. It was weird, yet there was also something beautiful brewing. Despite my best efforts to look the part, the students all instantly recognised I was not one of “them”. Was it the way I spoke? The style of my clothing? Or was it the way I wore my hijab? After I’d built up rapport with some of the students they informed that it was a combination of all of these and that they could sense my “otherness” immediately. They also kindly showed me how to wear a hijab properly (YouTube had failed me).

I support most feminist ideals, always have and always will. To be placed in a scenario that had an outward appearance of females being treated as inferiors and males as superiors was a thing for me. But my pre-existing stereotypes of Islamic gender roles did not fit what I was experiencing. In the junior high school levels I only taught girls (boys were at another campus). These students displayed a broad range of attitudes typical to any school. Some students were exceptionally concerned about their grades, while others just wanted to use class time to chat with their friends. Initially, I thought that because all the students had to wear hijabs I would not encounter distractions pertaining to appearance like playing with hair, wearing make up, and excessive jewellery, but no, all these issues popped up with exception of playing with hairstyles which was replaced with hijab fashioning.

The daily life experiences of the students did not match my definition of “normal”. However, I had to face the fact that it was my definition of “normal” that was wrong, not the Islamic lifestyle. For instance, how are compulsory hijabs any different to compulsory tie wearing in other schools? (I once worked in a school that required preps to wear ties.) Both are symbols of cultural values. To give another example, I felt like an outsider when I did not know how to respond to certain phrases mentioned at the opening of staff meetings, however, when I thought about it, this was no different to my non-Catholic peers in Catholic schools not knowing how to respond to customs they had not been initiated into.

In the specialty subjects of senior high school, years eleven and twelve, classes were mixed gendered and the expectation was that males and females would sit in different parts of the room. However, I did not know this when I first started. I’d been teaching at the school for at least six weeks when I learned fo this rule. When I realised I hadn’t been enforcing expectations, I apologised to my class for the oversight but the students just kind of smirked and told me genders were allowed to interact in Art classes because of the need to move around and use resources – teenagers of all cultures know how to work around school rules they don’t agree with.

On the teaching front, I thought at first that I could simply repeat lessons I’d given at previous schools, with the exception of portraiture and figure drawing. There were an abundance of other lessons like pattern making and landscapes painting that could be done. Sometimes these activities were successful, sometimes not. I had to stop making assumptions of prior learning experiences and be open trying new approaches that better suited the students before me. I realised that in the past I’d sometimes been robotic with my teaching, like I was in autopilot, but now I had to be fully present.

As time passed, more and more open conversations between myself and the students took place within the boundaries of professional interactions. Some students were devout to Islamic traditions, others not so. There is no one size fits all for Muslims just like there is no one unified Christianity.

I wish I could share some of the specific bonding points and examples of how the veils of otherness fell away, but like I said, due to confidentiality reasons, I cannot. Suffice to say, I was moved by the depth of acceptance that I was embraced with by students and staff.

In regards to the other teachers, in particular my female peers (Muslims), they were as dedicated and professional as other places I’ve worked. Many had Master degrees in addition to their teaching qualifications. Not only were they intellectual, they had a deep appreciation of the Arts. They were strong, kind hearted, and resourceful. On multiple occasions I witnessed female staff putting their back into moving furniture and doing physically laborious tasks. Why was I surprised to see this? Where had I gotten the impression that Islamic woman were meek, mild, and fully dependent upon men in accordance to (western) stereotype roles?

While my initial intention of working at the school was to keep to myself as much as possible, this simply did not happen and, after the first few trying weeks, I found myself looking forward going to the staff room to interact with my fellow teachers for morning tea break even though I could just as easily boil a kettle in my office. The conversations were typical of any work place. What did you do on the weekend? How’s the renovations going? Where are planning your next holiday? And similar topics. And of course work stuff, like did so and so do their homework?

I didn’t realise I was making genuine connections with my colleagues until second term. Some staff members started coming across to the art room (which was an effort due to it being located on the outskirts of the other school buildings) to catch up with me and have idle chatter because they’d missed me in the main staff room. Sometimes they shared stories of personal dilemmas, parenting issues, teaching moments, or the excitement of an up coming event they were looking forward to. In other words “normal” stuff.

Not everything was smooth sailing. I made bloopers, used the wrong phasing in some of lessons, and raffled a few feathers here and there with my unorthodoxy. However, when the principal commended me on the quality of my student’s art works and how refreshing it was to see new types of Art being made, I had no reason to doubt her sincerity. I like to think it was a two way street of learning, a building of an alliance through mutual tolerance and respect.

As I developed more comfortable feelings of being within an Islamic community, I felt inclined to do some shopping at the nearby centre as opposed to going home and shopping in my own familiar neighbourhood. On occasion, I did so still wearing a hijab and without. When I went to the shops without, I had a distinct feeling of being “other” whereas without it, I felt like one of “them”. I even perused the scarf stalls and purchased a couple of that had designs I felt reflected “me”. Doing so encouraged me to reflect upon the “uniforms” I self imposed on myself in other situations. On a philosophical level, I realised that “me” was deeper than my outward appearance and how others may judge what I was wearing.

As the end of my contract neared, it was with joy that I received the news that the school wanted to extend it. I communicated with the principal that I’d like to continue, however, the long drive was tiresome and I felt as though I was neglecting my son. She understood. She said she’d also once worked at a school that she had to drive an hour and half to attend, so in order to keep me she offered to reduce my allotment and rearrange the timetable so as I only needed to go in four days a week. Just days shy of signing the new contract, I was offered a job forty-five minutes from home. It was a tough decision but I decided it was in my personal interest to take the alternative job. My new position was at all boys Catholic school which I’ve written about elsewhere.

As I look back upon my experience of working at an Islamic school, the highs greatly out way the lows. I went there out of necessity and desperation for work, but it turned out to be one of the most rewarding opportunities I’ve ever had. I was an outsider to the culture but I was embraced, welcomed, and made to feel valued, despite my stuff ups. I’m quite certain my positive view of the experience was not a one way street. There were tears in the eyes of at least one student when I broke the news that I was leaving. They had changed me, and I them. Prejudices and misunderstandings were relinquished, perhaps in me more so than anyone else.

Prior to teaching in an Islamic school I had never considered myself to be discriminatory, but I’d also never been confronted with the need to really understand Islam. I had to be honest with myself, I had harboured silent prejudices against the Muslim faith that I may have never faced if I had not forced to do so.

When I told some people of my experiences of wearing a hijab, they questioned why I had to do so if my personal beliefs did not align with the custom. I understand where they were coming from, but personally, I’m glad I was able to put my values aside and respect the wishes of my employer. If I had not done so, I would not have been able to develop a deeper appreciation of life from another’s perspective.

Nowadays, if I pass an Islamic woman wearing a hijab on the streets, I tried to give them knowing smile. I do not know exactly what it is like to be “them” but I’ve had an experience of their culture that is sincere and valued to a point in which my previous “otherness” has been replaced with a sense of “us”. Do Islamic communities have issues of gender equality that need to be addressed? Yes, I do believe they do. But so to does western culture. At the end of the day, whatever culture or religion a person born into, we are all human and our shared humanity far outwards the differences.

One of the reasons I’ve have decided to share my experiences of working in an Islamic school now is because I am highly concerned about the Australian Federal government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill 2021. Presumably, the reason I was employed by the Islamic school was because I was the most qualified person interviewed (I found out later that an Islamic Art teacher had also been interviewed). Under Morrison’s bill, I may have missed out on the opportunity and the position given to a Muslim purely on the grounds of religious background alone, in other words, I would have been discriminated against for my religious background. The legal enabling of segregation practices based on religion is harmful on multiple levels.

My employment at a Muslim school was not a threat to their traditions or values. To think laws need to be made to prevent cross cultural interchanges so as religions can maintain “purity” is ridiculous.

Islam is not my religion, and I’m not about to convert. However, over the years, I have used my experience of working at an Islamic school in other teaching roles to inform my practice. For example, when possible, I interject traditional western presentations of Art history lessons with Islamic insights in a manner that I would not have done so prior to my position at a Muslim school. Surely, the dismantling of stereotypes and the fostering of alliances between cultures and different faiths is a good thing?

I rarely take selfies, however, due the commodity of having to wear a hijab some of my friends asked what I looked like, so I took a snapshot and posted it on social media. To my surprise, I was overwhelmed with responses telling me I looked beautiful. It felt weird. Why was I beautiful? Was it the pattern on my scarf? How could I be beautiful if I was covered? Had I covered my ugly parts? Or were they looking beyond my outer appearance? To this day, I still do know exactly. However, in accordance with my personal definition of beauty as a threefold phenomenon, I would describe my experience of teaching at an Islamic school as “Hera” beautiful! It was not dependent upon outward aesthetics like Aphrodite, nor did it fill me with beautiful emotions due to being triumphant over a challenge in an Athena style of beauty. Hera beauty is the beauty of transformation, an intangible experience not visible to the physical eye; the inner transformations I experienced by working at an Islamic school were definitely beautiful.

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