Difference need not be disruptive

There was a video that made the rounds on social media in the early days of what we are now calling the “hijab row”. A few young girls in uniform, wearing headscarves, hesitated outside the gates of an educational institution, clearly conflicted about how to respond to the demand to remove their scarves if they wished to enter. One young girl capitulates, the resignation and defeat clear in her movements as she takes off the scarf and shoves it inside her bag and quickly enters the gates. She appears to be no older than 14 or 15, and the discomfort in her body language is heartbreaking.

Regardless of how one understands secularism as a concept or a practice, it is difficult to accept the logic of those who would seek to institute policies that exclude on any grounds that have nothing to do with learning. Uniforms may be an equalizer, but can they not be designed to accommodate the many cultural identities that form this country? If we understand difference, and use it as an opportunity to build bridges across ways of thinking and living, why should cultural symbols be seen as threats? And what exactly are they threatening? How does banning a headscarf make possible a more open classroom, a space for dialogue and critical thinking? How does banning the hijab suddenly make students better learners, more focused even (because, as is being said, they are not distracted by identity markers)?

Repeatedly, we find that spaces of education become sites of identity wars, exploited for political gain by those who would, it seems, do as much as they can to destroy the growth of a reflective and critical mindset and put in its place a climate of unthinking compliance to an imposed norm or standard.

The victims in this case, those who stand to lose the most, are the young women who may now lose access to education, because their belief systems preclude appearing in public without a headscarf. The picture of that young girl comes back to me, repeatedly, and I simply cannot find a justification for forcing her to remove her headscarf in that very public way – she seems to symbolize a vulnerability that we have been trying for decades, as a state, as civil society, to first recognize and then accommodate. Whatever happened to that impulse to include? Shouldn’t we be creating flexible, inviting structures that ensure that children will stay in school, and not drop out of college?

As teachers and also as members of civil society, it may seem like we have little to do with these politics, and that there is little we can do. But teachers do more than simply transmit content and concepts – they also help build attitudes and world views. Such issues offer us the opportunity to ask these questions and generate healthy debate around them. If we can use difference to build understanding, instead of seeing it as a disruptive force, then identity markers wouldn’t be causes for concern, but expressions of our cultural diversity.

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