This was a documentary filmed for a one year period, following two girls as they joined an independent Muslim school.
The first girl is seven year old Zara, from a British Asian family, she is the youngest child and the first child in the family to attend a Muslim school. Her Mum (her name is not given), feels that they don’t have time to teach her enough religious knowledge and want her to feel confident in her Muslim identity.
Aisha, aged twelve is the second girl. She is white and converted to Islam as a very young child, after her mother met and married, Ishaq, a Muslim from Pakistan. Aisha’s mother is also a convert. She explains that Aisha suffered some bullying in their previous area and feels that a Muslim school will be more disciplined and provide a better standard of education.
While the school is multicultural, Aisha will be the only white girl in the school.
The documentary style is very typically fly on the wall. The voiceover narrates events, but does not analyse them. This means that the girl’s words are the centrepiece of the documentary. It is refreshing to have Muslim girls and women speaking for themselves.
The first scene inside the school is during Zara’s class. A young, female teacher talking about the qualities of Allah and that in order to love Allah, we should know His qualities. The class is mixed. All the girls are wearing white Amira style hijabs, but a variety of grey uniforms, abayas, shalwar khalmeezes or long skirts and jumpers.
Back at Zara’s house and we are introduced to her older sister, Aiesa. The narrator tells us that Aiesa doesn’t wear hijab. Zara’s mum (who also doesn’t wear hijab) is asked about Zara’s hijab. She states that she feels it is easier to wear hijab, if you start wearing it at an early age, she feels that because she didn’t wear hijab when younger, she found it difficult to do so later.
Zara’s Mum is then asked about her own upbringing. She explains she grew up in a very white, middle class area. She enjoyed her childhood, but did feel it was lacking in Asian and Islamic influence, something she wants to ensure Zara has. She stresses the importance of knowing the society you live in, but also your ethnic and religious identity.
Pupils are encouraged to make wudu and pray at school and the hall is used as a prayer room. The children are shown making wudu and praying.
Aisha shows her timetable (pupils have to follow the secular National Curriculum alongside Islamic studies). She talks about learning Arabic and that she feels she is fitting in, even though she is the only white girl.
Aisha’s Mum explains how important she feels religious values are in society. To her, Britain was a better, more respectful place, when church attendance and religious practice was the norm.
The narrator asks her about wearing hijab (she is wearing a large dupatta). She states that it was her choice to wear hijab. Her husband did ask her if she wanted to wear niqab. Her response was a firm no. He has not raised the subject since. When asked about her own education, she says that she did not perform well in school as she did not like being told what to do.
Aisha, describes meeting her stepdad, who she refers to as Dad. She is not really in touch with her biological father, although he does send a letter and photographs during the filming.
The narration states that Aisha has had to reconcile two cultures from an early age. This statement is a touch heavy handed, hinting at culture clash stereotypes. It ignores the fact that Aisha has experienced both cultures for most of her life.
Surely it is more likely that being bicultural is something Aisha views as an integral part of her life, rather then a constant struggle. As the narrator does not ask Aisha this question directly, the viewer is left wondering instead of finding what what Aisha’s feelings actually are.
Back to Zara’s class and they children are being taught about Ramadan and what the “saving from the hellfire” part means. All the children are familiar with the concept of Heaven and Hell and the teacher explains that hellfire is for people who aren’t very good.
Zara is in her room, the camera pans to some children playing outside. Zara explains that she is not allowed to play outside.
“Is it because the children are not Muslim?”, asks the narrator.
Zara replies with a firm no and when asked if she feels different to Non Muslim children, In a matter of fact manner, she states not really, except they don’t wear hijab or do Islamic studies.
Then we get the Muslim Documentary Money Shot, as Zara is asked to show how she puts her hijab on. As this is a one piece, Amirah hijab, it is surely not too difficult to work this out without a demonstration. However, this is a documentary about Muslim females and some cliches must be too hard to fight.
When, asked, Zara states that the hijab covers the hair, which is a woman’s beauty. To her, wearing it will help you go to paradise and if you don’t wear it, you might go to hell.
The narrator then asks about Zara’s mum and sister, who do not wear hijab. Zara asserts that her mum is fine, but she’s not sure about her sister. When asked if her sister prays, Zara says, she sometimes does.
Aiesa (Zara’s sister) is shown getting ready to go out. The narrator asks if her parents mind her going out. She says her parents are quite strict, especially her dad, “He has issues”.
Aiesa and Zara’s mum is asked about this. She describes how independent Aiesa is, that while it is important to set boundaries, being too strict would make her more determined, not less, so they do try and give her some leeway. As for Zara, she wants her to be independent and confident but hopes that the Islamic school will give her a better awareness of why the boundaries are there, finishing with, “You have to be more careful with girls”.
Sadly, it appears that some girls have been mocking Aisha, we see two of her classmates relaying back what has been said. Apparently, some girls have been saying she’s not a real Muslim and doesn’t know how to pray.
The narrator states that Zara is doing well in school. She is shown doing a times table test and then making wudu with three classmates. The little girls are asked about heaven and hell. Hell is for bad people, they respond. When asked if they thought they might go to hell, they said they didn’t know, but really hoped not.
Aiesa decides she wants to wear hijab for Ramadan, to see what it feels like. Her dad tried to make her wear it before and that put her off. Zara teases her, saying she doesn’ t look nice wearing it. It would appear that Zara, really enjoys teasing her big sister.
Aisha is looking at some photos her biological dad sent. She has long red hair, something she used to get teased for at school. This is one reason why she likes wearing hijab so much, even around the house. She states in a resigned manner, that she will probably never feel like she belongs anywhere.
Aisha is next shown in the classroom. The teacher is writing the word ‘Diversity’ on the board as the centre of a spider diagram. The teacher reads out the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) Last Sermon, stating that racial superiority is forbidden in Islam. Then, she reminds the class of the hadith about those with even the tiniest piece of arrogance will not enter Paradise.
Finally, she asks the class to split into groups and work on a scenario about a new girl who joins the school and is excluded. They have to imagine how she would feel and what they would do to help her.
The narrator states that the school took Aisha’s isolation seriously and worked to end it.
Zara is at home and again the narrator is asking her about hijab. She asserts that you have to wear hijab. When asked about her sister, Zara rather scornfully says she didn’t wear hijab for long and whispers to the camera that her sister doesn’t even pray and that “A fire will come”. Again, one gets the feeling that Zara is very fond of making fun of her big sister, rather then passing stern religious judgement.
The narrator asks Zara, “But will I go to Paradise, I don’t pray or wear hijab?”.
Unpeturbed, Zara explains that she is a different religion, so she doesn’t have to do those things, “You’re a good women, aren’t you?”. When the narrator replies in the affirmative, Zara states that she should go to Paradise then, but she is not sure about Aiesa.
Aiesa, meanwhile states that she does want to wear hijab when older and that she feels that religion and religious guidelines are very important. to her religion is something very private and personal.
Aisha is shown having a snowball fight with her Dad and sisters. She is asked if she sees many non-Muslim girls. She replies that she is not allowed out as her father is very strict, but she does feel she has a much happier life then non Muslim girls. Her father is also strict about her doing her Islamic
The narrator questions if she is studying Islam just to please him. Aisha answers that she is studying for herself and would like to learn enough to teach others. When asked if she thinks she will always be Muslim, she responds with a firm yes. It is good that Aisha is shown explaining this in her own words, rather then the pat summary of the narrator.
The last shot we are shown of Aisha, is of her walking arm in arm with her best friend. She says really feels happy at the school, she belongs here.
Zara’s mum believes sending her daughter to an Islamic School was a good thing, but she still wants Zara to mix with others. She doesn’t feel the school, will stop Zara feeling British, as she will get her sense of Britishness from her.
Zara and her Mum are sitting on the sofa discussing what Zara has learnt at school. First they talk about heaven and hell. Zara’s mum explains that while these are real, so is Allah’s forgiveness and He can forgive whom He wishes.
Then Zara mentions hijab, she feels her Mum would be perfect is she wore it, “…as you are already very kind”.
Zara’s mum gently explains to her that a person’s prayers and insides are more important then hijab and Zara concedes that you can be a good Muslim without wearing hijab.
The obvious focus of the documentary is how how the girls feel about themselves as Muslims. Aside from the clips of the teachers in the classroom, there is not much information provided about Islam beliefs. This maintains the naturalistic style of the documentary.
However, this does mean that there is very little insight into how children may view certain Islamic beliefs, as compared to adults. This is particularly demonstrated by the apparent fixation of Zara and her classmates with Hell. Children are often fascinated by the otherworldly or unusual, hence the popularity of fairy tales and myths amongst children.
Therefore such an interest in the Heaven and Hellfire, is likely to be more to do with this aspect of a child’s nature, then actual Islamic practice. Unfortunately, the documentary does not explore this area, so a viewer be left with the stereotypical impression that Muslims have a fear driven relationship with God.
The hijab fixation while irritating, was not a surprising feature. The underlying thrust of this documentary, like so many others concerning Islam and Muslims, is whether Muslims and Islamic practice are compatible with the West. Hijab is still widely viewed as a mark of difference, rather then one of religious belief, hence the ongoing fascination with a symbol deemed as Un-Western.
More positively, everyone involved seemed happy with their lives and choices. It was good that Muslims were shown to want to be a part of wider society as well as practicing their faith.
Especially golden, was the scene where Zara’s mum stated that the children would get Britishness from her, while dressed in a Shalwar Khalmeez. Therefore, exploding the ugly myth that anyone wearing traditional Asian clothing wants to isolate themselves from mainstream U.K society.
Also of note, is that her initial repsonse to many questions was, “I thought you would ask that”, before giving a detailed answer. That she had obviously thought through these issues, show that her decision to send Zara to Islamic school was not a base impulse of fear of non Muslim society, but one based on careful consideration of several different factors. She states that she wants her daughters to be confident and independent, qualities the mainstream media does not often associate with Muslim women.
The scenes inside the school showed a positive approach to Islam, with the pupils being encouraged to love Allah and shown this love through being kind to each other.
Finally, a big stereotype of Islamic schools is that they foster hatred of non-Muslims, but such attitudes were not demonstrated by anyone involved.
Hopefully this documentary will show that Islamic faith schools can be a positive part of British society.
UK readers can watch the documentary here. Footage for non UK viewers is currently not available.