Islamophobia in Schools: A Photo Essay

–By Insha Bint Bashir

Artist Note: Creative photography needs a lot of props and a proper set which newcomers in the field of photography like me do not have access to. If there was no lockdown and I could go outside and have a model, it would have been to my satisfaction.


I tried capturing some of the catchy instances from Nazia Erum’s book Mothering a Muslim to show how Islamophobia exists in Indian schools and what Indian Muslim kids in school often face due to stigmatisation of their religious identity and largely due to the polarisation of the mainstream politics.

Artist Bio

Insha Bint Bashir recently graduated as a Young India Fellow from Ashoka University. She did her bachelors and master’s in political science from Aligarh Muslim University. She is interested in studying problems around gender and politics and is currently pursuing master’s in liberal studies under the department of Anthropology and Pol. Science at Ashoka University. She spends most of her time researching, reading and writing and understanding student activism. Insha is an occasional poet and calls herself a child of conflict. She tries to weave her pain of growing as a Kashmiri through metaphors in her poems.

Most of her childhood days, stuck indoors because of recurrent curfews and shutdowns she became a photography enthusiast, often making photos in black and white and sepia tone to depict the grim reality of her life and neighbourhood under the shades of conflict. Insha tries to freelance and paves way for her emotions through creative photography. She believes to carry three dangerous identities with her, a Kashmiri, a woman and a Muslim.

Breaking the Glass Slipper: Diversity and Discord in Children’s Literature

–Shaoni Dasgupta

As essential as it is to revisit the folk tales and fairy tales that many of us have grown up with, for tenets of indomitable spirit, essence of magic and believing in “as many as six impossible things before breakfast” (Lewis Caroll), the revisit must also include an interest in the re-telling of the same. The diverse characters and empowering stories would not only retain the magic of the fairy tales but also situate it in a modern-day situation which asks to blur the lines of discrimination. It is essential to indulge in stories where the damsel is not in distress and doesn’t require saving- either from a high tower or a bullying, evil stepmother.

Literature for children from the days of Panchatantra to now, through its multi-faceted avenues have been making children aware of their culture, society and surroundings. Traditionally, children’s literature has not been vocal in the representation of diversity, thereby reflecting the then-society’s general lack of awareness and further the need to expose a multifarious reality to children. However, over the years, this realization that the need for socially aware and inclusive literature starts early, has dawned upon many.

It is essential that children see themselves in the books they read and learn to empathize with ‘alien’ concepts and ideas as a mere stretch of their own reality. Seeing a representation of one’s reality is a much-empowered dimension that can be added to a personality, young or otherwise. As young minds, the readers are more impressionable and hence the requirement to start early- in inculcating a sense of diversity and social awareness. It is the lack of awareness that seeps deep into the skin of a child who then grows up to be indifferent to the sufferings of others, shows lack of empathy to anyone who is not them or similar to them. The otherization surfaces both brutally and otherwise. The range can be from stereotyping a person with different interests from yours by sticking a label on them to being intolerant on a larger scale in terms of religion, caste and social-standing. If honour-killing is a reality representative of intolerance, regular bullying in school springs from a similar history of lack of empathy and inability to embrace others.

Much to the relief of many, publishers have started to bridge the gap in diversity representation in their books. As the many statistical reports suggest, there are very few books on children of colour, on gender equality as a tool to change the present and the future, on disability as an enabler and not otherwise. The Diversity Baseline Survey of 2019 yielded concerning results- the industry consisted of 81% straight people, only 11% disabled people, 97% Cis men and women and 76% Caucasian population.

The Unboy Boy, written by Richa Jha, illustrated by Gautam Benegal and published by Pickle Yolk Books, traces the story of Gagan and his ease at being who he is, despite everyone trying to make a ‘boy’ out of him. Gagan’s mother’s assurance to him every night brings peace to him and hope to the readers of a world that is non-binary. While Sadiq Wants to Stitch written by Mamta Nainy, illustrated by Niloufer Wadia and published by Karadi Tales, emphasizes on a similar trope, it is extended beyond the subcontinent in titles like Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love where our protagonist is in love with the idea of mermaids and proceeds to dress himself as one by the end of the book, thereby highlighting self-acceptance. A similar set is the Satrangi Ladke-Satrangi Ladkiya books written by Kamla Bhasin, illustrated by Priya Kurian and published by Pratham Books. These picture books, amongst many others, re-emphasize the need to express one’s true self and eventually accept it.

Publishers are also concentrating on the diverse and magical ways families are born. In My Heart, written by Nandana Dev Sen, and published by Puffin Books, elucidates Mia’s journey to find her tummy-mummy and the journey leading her to bigger and better truth. The heart-warming illustrations by Ruchi Mhasane adds to the beautiful journey of the little girl who has so far believed that she has come out of the hearts of her parents and hence, is so much like them.

Julius Lester’s Let’s Talk About Race, illustrated by Karen Barbour and published by Harper Collins, beautifully captures the celebration of diversity, as the author shares in a note to this book, “I write because our lives are stories. If enough of those stories are told, then perhaps we will begin to see that our lives are the same story. The differences are mainly in the details.” The well-known political theorist and anti-caste activist Kancha Illaiah Shepherd has authored Maa, where the protagonist, a young professor from the Shepherd community remembers his mother fighting against the atrocities of caste and enabling the community to stand up against the prevalent discrimination in the village. Published by Eklavya and illustrated by Lokesh Khodke and Shefalee Jain, this book is a stirring tale that can be used to sensitise children towards a future of no discrimination. The Why Why Girl by Mahasweta Devi and illustrated by Kanyika Kini, published by Tulika Books, also stresses on a multitude of societal issues, from caste discrimination, to having a resilient girl as a protagonist whose thirst for knowledge is heavily criticised, earning her the title of The Why Why Girl. Puu, by CG Salamander and Samidha Gunjal and published by Scholastic, traces the issue of manual scavenging and brings it within the scope and understanding of children. The title emphasises on the pun in the word ‘puu’- a Tamil word for flowers and the English word ‘poo’ and takes us further away from the bright pink flowers and little pigs on the cover. As expressed by the author-illustrator duo, this book was aimed at being a conversation starter and so it has! The metaphor in the pink flowers, the replacement of butterflies by bees and the intended dark brown skin of the protagonist, is successful in making Puu a book about the ‘lesser humans’ in the eyes of society, while constantly reminding us of the societal structure and its glaring woes.

Thukpa For All, a book by Karadi Tales, written by Prabha Ram and Sheela Preuitt and illustrated by Shilpa Ranade, depict a narrative of community-compassion and hope as Tsering’s inability to see doesn’t come in his way of love and compassion. It also beautifully narrates how a visually-impaired child experiences the world around through sights and smells, much like Gopu from Richa Jha’s Maccher Jhol. Published by Pickle Yolk Books and illustrated by Sumanta Dey, the negotiation of the ordinary that the protagonist goes through as he steps out of his comfort zone, is heart-wrenchingly beautiful. The heart of the story is his compassion for the father who has hand-held him through every noise and silence of the city and his ultimate wish to bring to him (the father) unadulterated joy in savouring a favourite dish. The unadulterated joy for the father, as the readers perceive, is in this warm attempt by his visually-impaired son, who has, for the first time, flouted all the rules to make him happy.

It is essential that the community of publishers, authors and illustrations continue on this path of opening new windows for everyone alike. The discussed diversity projects itself as a rainbow that is born out of the clouds of prejudice and the downpour of societal obstacles. The necessity of tuning a child to existing prejudices, calamities and stereotypes is the foundational stepping stone to the magical universe of impartiality.

Author Bio

An assistant editor at StoryWeaver, Pratham Books and an enthusiast of all things poetry, Shaoni is a proud Bengali who unwinds by whipping up a cuisine or two. She loves the ‘flaneur’ in her and admits to have scribbled about unnamed people, roads and water banks while travelling. Reviews and analyses excite the academic soul in her!

The Ugly Duckling

Lockdown has brought many kinds of problems in its wake.  Probably the worst hit are the children, who find themselves totally confined within four restrictive walls.   Most of them miss their daily dose of fun and games. There are some special children, who might not be able to play physical games, but they too look forward to a change of scene, in the form of vocational classes or crèches, or day-care centres.  So, what do we grown-ups do to keep such children occupied? We tell them stories.

Part of my everyday timetable these days is to tell a story to my own child, an autistic, mentally challenged child of 48.   We have a stock of books at home, her own personal library, a fairly large, though jumbled–up collection of children’s books. There are Bengali classics like Tuntunir Golpo and Khirer Putul; many English tales including fairy tales and classics like Heidi and Little Women; Amar Chitra Katha comics and Karadi Tales. Old, well-loved, well-thumbed, dog-eared books, for my girl Emgee is slow to take to anything new. A fairy tale she’s read a hundred times gives her more pleasure than a new story, for she can follow the familiar story with greater ease.  So I took out the volume of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales for our story-reading session today. Emgee is very fond of these stories.

She selected ‘The Ugly Duckling’ for today’s session. I began by describing the mother duck waiting for her eggs to hatch. “Babies will come”, my girl kept repeating. “Mummy duck going to child!” Her tone was excited at the thought of the mother’s joy at giving birth to a child. We had given up trying to correct her grammar decades ago. I continued to read the story with her, embroidering it as we went along. For this was also a drama session for us.

We reached the section in the story where the “ugly” duckling is beginning to realize that he is not like the other ducklings. Initially, his mother tries to hide him under her wing and protect him by making excuses for him. But soon, she runs out of excuses. Other ducks, even Daddy Duck, are offended by the ugliness of this baby. They refuse to talk to him or play with him. He doesn’t know what his fault is.

I am a little absent-minded today. Suddenly, I recognize the many layers of meaning I can invest in this story, something I had not done earlier. Many parallels with my 21st century world crop up in my mind: many true incidents and a few imagined tales, but all with themes similar to the Ugly Duckling’s experience. I think about the girls who are constantly shamed because of the colour of their skin. Practically every Indian family boasts of one example where a non-descript but fair daughter ‘catches’ a promising groom, but the intelligent, though dark daughter is left high and dry.  “Shyama”, says my Emgee. This is a television serial about a dusky girl who is constantly heckled and mistreated because of the colour of her skin. Emgee  has understood that the themes of the T.V. serial about the dark girl, and the travails of the Ugly Duckling are broadly similar. I hasten to rub in the lesson that such discrimination is wrong. Emgee has another poser in store for me. “The Blacks?” she chirps. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” And I am immediately reminded of George Floyd. But it’s not just him.  I also think of others in our part of the world…Chuni Kotal,  Reingamphi, Mary Ezung, Rishikesh Wawalker, Moni Orang…and countless others. 

Though Emgee has the intelligence level of a five-year old, she also has the lived experience of 48 years. But she has combined her limited intellectual prowess with her intuitive awareness and made the necessary connections between a fairy tale and the world she had experienced.  Yet, why had I, a mother, a teacher and an avid reader, not understood the simple description of discrimination in this tale during all these years of telling and retelling it? Instead, I had always seen it as an ethereal story of wish fulfillment. As for the fairy-tale ending, composed of  radiant happiness, rainbows and beautiful wings: these  were dreams with which to beguile innocent children and nothing more, I used to think.

We come to the portion in the story where the duckling has fled from his family and wanders forlornly in search of shelter. The farmer’s wife in the neighbouring village shudders with loathing when she spies this unsightly creature, and attacks him with a stick. As he flees, he is pursued by wicked-looking barking dogs, and even the hens and cockerels are ready to peck at him. I have been too generous with my realistic descriptions. Tears flow down Emgee’s cheeks.

I hurriedly assure her that all will eventually be well. But scene after scene from the news we see on the television everyday rises up before my eyes. A little brown boy drowned while trying to reach a safe haven in the white man’s land, where he went in search of shelter. Refugees, Rohingyas, Kashmiris, Internally displaced people… different in appearance and dress, and speaking a different language from the locals, who were all ‘suspects’….brutally rejected, treated with cruelty, with contempt. Just because they were different, hence “ugly”.  Just like the Ugly Duckling!

At last we have come to the satisfying fairy tale end, the “happily ever after” moment of the story. Transformed into a majestic swan, his graceful wings bearing him higher and ever higher into the air, the Ugly Duckling has experienced his own moment of catharsis. But he had to achieve Beauty to be acceptable! Did the original storyteller have any idea that he was setting up a template for prejudice, I wondered. How far did children automatically and unconsciously imbibe such ideas through fairy tales, even without any clear knowledge of the ways of the world?

As the story ends, Emgee’s face is lit up with a radiant smile. Her eyes have almost disappeared as her plump cheeks glow, her lips widened to their limit and her face resembling the full moon. Then she gets up slowly and looks at herself in the mirror. “Am I looking pretty?” she asks.

Such an innocent question but what heartbreak it contains!  I looked back to a time, around forty five years ago, when a beautiful child with the saddest eyes in the world would wait anxiously as the school bus came up to where we stood. As the door of the bus opened, every window held a face, and some of those looked at the child with scorn, others with an ugly curiosity, a few with contempt. Just one or two flashed a sweet, compassionate smile. A desperate hand would cling to mine. ”I won’t go to school”, she beseeched. But all those years ago, I hadn’t known that her shyness and slowness had been the signs of autism and a less developed brain! I had thought she needed the stimulus and exposure of the smarter kids. Yet over the years, with intense pain, we realised, the two of us, that when someone is different, she becomes “ugly”!

It required the wisdom of a grandmother to bring solace, to heal wounds. Emgee’s grandmother would make the prettiest of dresses for her, knit beautiful sweaters, deck her hair with colourful ribbons and sparkly clips. Then stand her in front of the mirror and tell her, “Is any other child as pretty as my little one?” And somewhere along the way, Emgee came to regard her prettiness as her armour. 

The face of another child floats into my mind’s eye today: eleven-year-old Ritam,  a student of a school outside Kolkata where I was a teacher.  He was a frail child with a head that appeared too large for his rather weak body, and enormous blank eyes. We had realized early on that he was a slow learner. He was also given to strange wild moods, when he could be disruptive, or callous or just ungovernable. I recalled the time when, after getting very low marks in a class test, he actually tore his answer sheet to shreds in the classroom. Yet, when he was scolded or counselled, he didn’t seem to understand what he had done, or why he had received a reprimand. On such occasions, his face would remain completely dead-pan, his eyes expressionless. Gradually, he became the butt of his classmates’ jokes, his teachers vented their frustration and impatience on him and he remained alone and unwanted. Occasionally, I would spy the same forlorn look in his eyes as in Emgee’s, but I too failed to do anything about it. Ritam was indeed another Ugly Duckling, whose strangeness had made him an outcaste.

Finally one day, a couple of boys in his class stole some books from another child, but carefully made it appear that Ritam was the culprit. Unfortunately, neither his teachers nor his parents believed that Ritam was a victim of mischief, or that, with his level of understanding, he couldn’t possibly have committed that smart crime. Nor did we realize that he was actually being punished for being “ugly”. We should have found a way of making him feel secure.  Instead, like the duckling in the story, Ritam faced rejection from his own family and the grown-ups in school, and scorn and ridicule from his classmates. By the time efforts were made to reach out to the hurt child, it was too late…Ritam had retreated inside a shell that would not be broken easily. And there was no way to remove the tag of ugliness which had been affixed to him. Alas, there was no happy ending for Ritam’s story.

As I mulled over this tragic real story, I wondered why Ritam’s classmates and the children in school had ostracized him. Where did they learn the lessons of stereotyping? Was it natural to feel discomfort when facing someone who is different?  Weren’t children supposed to be innocent…then why were they so cruel towards Ritam? Were they unconsciously picking up the clues from society? How much of this awareness was contributed by stories like The Ugly Duckling…stories, which even now, were mindlessly repeated, without anyone looking below the surface at the ways in which they created stereotypes?

I used to consider myself to be a fairly sensitive, knowledgeable individual, aware of the different kinds and levels of prejudice rampant in our world. So, my rather belated re-evaluation of the story of ‘The Ugly Duckling’ was like an eye-opener to me. Yet, in some hazy, intuitive way, I also realized that there was no simple moral to such a fairy tale, as we had been taught half a century ago. Nor could we expect simple, clear-cut answers, easy solutions or the happy-ever-after endings that would heal all the wounds created by prejudices. To overcome prejudice, the Ugly Duckling had had to attain to Beauty. So did my child, though not Ritam.  But what is that ideal of Beauty which ALL can see, comprehend, aspire to and attain?

We adults seem to require a very strong sense of personal identity, one which conforms to uniformly accepted, universal social standards. Perhaps that is why we fail to recognize the beauty which lies in mere being and existing and which makes variety such a fascinating  quality of life. Instead, we allow the juggernaut of uniformity to roll over every blossom, stamping out every late-blooming or unique flower, which we conveniently label as “ugly”. Conversely, children often possess a wide, all-embracing vision, which allows them to unquestioningly incorporate the whole gamut of existence within one inclusive world-view. If tales written for children also nurtured such a fraternal vision, coloured with childlike innocence and wonder, surely this would prevent stereotyping, and would, therefore, make discrimination and prejudice redundant… even irrelevant! So, let us rewrite our fairy tales. Let us consciously banish the very concept of ugliness and incorporate greater wisdom and light in them. Let us do this honestly and sincerely. For the future of our children depends on it.

Further Reading:
1. https://thelogicalindian.com/news/bengal-school-book-calls-dark-people-ugly-21629

2. https://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9805:beauty-femininity-and-the-politics-of-desire&catid=120:gender&Itemid=133

3. https://magazine.outlookindia.com/story/india-news-opinion-is-india-racist-from-migrant-labours-to-sushant-singh-rajput-biharis-have-been-ridiculed-with-gay-abandon/303557

Poem in Featured Image by a 12 year old, Abhideep. Submitted by Author.

Author Bio

Born in 1955, Sipra Bhattacharya studied History at Presidency College, and post-graduation in History from Delhi University.She has been a student and teacher of History in college and school, retiring recently in 2019. International Relations of the 19th and 20th century, as well as the History of Modern India are of special interest to her. She is also a translator of fiction and non-fiction works from Bangla to English.

IF WE WANT TO TEACH INCLUSIVITY TO CHILDREN, FIRST LET’S LOOK AT THE WORLD THEY SEE

A. Engage with Childhood Discovery: The First Point of Worldview Distortion

Recently, in my pursuit of unconventional cinema, I came across a set of heartwarming stories that believed in the power of an unconventional and distorting worldview. More so, a child’s view: looking through the glass and playing with the spectrum of light so you can sometimes fill in with your own colours to reproduce a known image. I felt a sense of bliss while connecting to the naive characters who were positioned in a gritty reality, yet they journeyed through those worlds with fascination, stories, hope, and imagination. As mature adults, we develop a biased perception towards the kind of sensibility and intelligence that this world naturally demands for effective survival and aspirational choices. In effect, this often pulls away our attention from an important phase of exploration in a person’s life: the stage where innocence, joy and creativity are predominant guides to our vision and consequential actions.

Before the age of wisdom, comes countless moments of awe and wonder. Carl Sagan once shared how his intense affair with astronomical science began with his restless childhood quest to learn about stars1. Despite engaging with elder minds around him on the nature and reality of stars, young Carl failed to gather a satisfactory understanding of the shimmering bodies in the nightsky. He pursued his imagination by means of illustrative drawings. Until one day, he came across the book called Secret of Stars and discovered that stars are actually suns with perhaps their own galaxies and planetary systems. For the curious boy with a telescope, thiswas a pulsating idea that stirred his emotions and flung opened the scale of cosmic universe before his eyes. His worldview changed forever. 

In one of my recent cinematic experiences, I got to visit a relatable psychological expedition of two siblings from Nepal who landed in Sikkim in search of refuge, in the simplistically charming film Pahuna, meaning ‘the little visitors’. In an attempt to escape unrest in their own country, three children end up getting separated from their parents and live an independent life for a brief period. At an astoundingly young age, Amrita and Pranay take care of their infant brother Bishal in a distant land where they not only manage to build their shelter and cook food but also unravel myths and speculations of the Church (a place they recognised earlier as the one filled with monster priests who oppressively make children forget their own Gods and culture). Their worldview changed when priest turns out to be a friend.

I traced a similar character’s journey in the thoughtfully crafted Chippa, where the eponymous 10-year-old boy wander in a distinct underbelly region of Kolkata streets during midnight and subverts the decadence and hopelessness of his reality through his powerful fairytale like imagination. Having a flair for compelling conversations and endless freedom, Chippa lets his mind dream of becoming a footballer, policeman and a taxi driver at the same time. In his interactions with people he crossed paths with, we would find no space for concepts like boundaries, nationalism, elitism, caste, or gender. By conveying the lesson that life has just begun to self-absorbed adults, Chippa reinforces faith in his own vision that do not allow him to get affected by the widespread human suffering and misery. It reminded me of what Spielberg’s classic filmmaking delivered several years back in The Empire of the Sun.    

Such mediums of storytelling are a subtle presentation to portray the inevitable innocence that guides human understanding at such an age. Without connecting with the voice of that innocence where the loci of child’s perception locate itself, we fail to make real sense of their beliefs and actions, and process of unlearning becomes a trivial effort.

B. Be Prepared: Adversity and Severe Conflicts is not Rare at a Young Age

While being aware of the ugliness and chaos of the outside world, there is always a relentless pursuit by protective individuals to shelter children in their early stages, keeping their sight and thoughts preoccupied with joyful moments and aspirational beliefs. Unfortunately, a huge population of children barely touch this liberty due to certain big differentiators operating in the world they inhabit.

First Big Differentiator: Social Identity

Hostility due to social and gender identity is still highly prevalent within the Southeast Asian context. Psychologically and emotionally, it leads to a sense of world alienation for children who end up being at the receiving end of this hostility. Consciousness about social identity manifolds in public, as children start becoming insecure about their skin, their hair, their name, their clothes as well as their voices2. In rural and tribal regions of India, caste and gender inequalities play a significant role in shaping a child’s sensibility unless there is a timely intervention by school at an early stage.

Things complicate further for children when there is an implicit bias on caste or gender associated with teachers and staff at schools- the only space where learning can possibly surmount the discriminatory lines of belonging. Globally, close to 139 million girls are out of school in various countries due to family pressures, poverty, and other societal obstacles3. In India, discrimination often gets uglier with intersection of caste and gender roles preventing children from getting equal opportunities in schools. States like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand have earlier reported cases where lower caste students were ill-treated, neglected, or abused by teachers and principals. These dynamics when prolonged during primary and secondary schooling can produce minds with poor socialisation and lack of positive life skills to grow. Therefore, it is no surprise that a state like Jharkhand with high tribal population has a 70% dropout rate among school children and also remains one of the poorest regions in the country4.

Second Big Differentiator: Economic Identity

Unfavourable conditions are not just restricted to developing countries. Contrary to conventional belief that economic prosperity leads to better societies, U.S statistics estimate that 1 in 7 children in the country experience child abuse or neglect. Neglect is the most common form of child abuse, followed by physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse5. But a question we must ask ourselves is what kind of children would be far more susceptible to such negative impacts?

In 2018 with nearly 1 in 6 children living in poverty, child poverty rate in America was estimated to be 16% which is nearly one-and-a-half times higher than that for adults ages 18-64 (11 percent) and two times higher than that for adults 65 and older (10 percent) 6. Furthermore, significant relation between poverty and race has been supported through statistics and research on various development indicators. On the other hand, the widespread struggle with respect to child poverty in developing countries has been an ongoing subject of debate in the world of policy, academia, and civil society. In a recent report, OECD stated that the majority of developing countries in its cluster have children more likely to be under poverty than the general population7.    

Income becomes a differentiator in several ways despite both developing and developed countries investing in welfare programs. Raghuram Rajan in his new book The Third Pillar talks about the growing phenomenon of residential segregation in the modern U.S society: the intense fragmentation of communities by their income groups because certain high class areas like Chicago do not provide space to families with low financial capacities. Such policy induced disparities further widens the gap of inclusion as poor children experience lack of opportunities to get into quality education schools and have better social interactions8.

Third Big Differentiator: Migrant Identity

Migration plays out to be a big differentiator for children by deepening their universal longing for home and acceptance. A large population in this world remain footloose, migrating within the country or between countries. In India, public schools of urban cities cater to children who migrates from villages and have families working in construction and other informal spaces. This gives us a sense of the cultural diversity and inequity one can expect in public school classrooms as children from different regions and states are likely to be in the same space. It becomes way more challenging to ensure inclusion when the parents are seasonal or temporary migrants due to unavailability of settlement and economic means.

Moreover, international migration becomes a significant factor in lives of children belonging to poverty stricken or conflict-ridden regions. In 2019, among the world’s migrants there were nearly 29 million refugees and asylum seekers who got forcibly displaced from their own countries. An additional 41 million people in 2018 were internally displaced due to conflict and violence, with an estimated 17 million being children9. Despite intense migration rates being prevalent over the years, little research has been documented on the deeper psychological and emotional impact of displacement and migration on children of different age groups. Although, studies have established that severe losses and disruptions due to violence and social conflict lead to high levels of anxiety and psychological trauma, strongly visible in child refugees from Syria, Somalia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Afghanistan.  In one way or the other, sustained impact of migration can be related to how a child feels when they lose their shelter at a young age. Natural disasters like earthquake and hurricanes also lead to miserable homelessness for millions every year and such children also find themselves unravelling chaos and instability for longer periods of their life. A study by UNICEF and Save The Children on the psychological impact of Nepal Earthquake in 2014 is a notable work that demonstrates the aftermath effect of disaster on the perception of child 10.             

C. Initiate Dialogue with Children: Ask Them Questions and Let Them Stay with it

Scientific temperament is being widely recognised as one of the most essential 21st century skills.  Technology, social media, and Internet are massive mediums of information exchange, but they turn out to be equally capable to act as a smokescreen of biases, notions and ideology driven opinions. Amidst a sea of information exposure, the impulsive tendency to find immediate answers to satisfy one’s belief or viewpoint is inevitable when there is no emphasis on greater reflection and non-judgmental inquiry towards complicated questions. If we just look around or open our social media accounts, the paramount need of scientific temperament for new generation of learners will become way clearer perhaps!      

As discussed in the previous section, the children will possess an established worldview built by their observations and experience. The adult to intervene in this worldview could be a teacher, guardian, or parent but in the end they all will end up playing the role of the educator. In the process of initiating dialogue, it is necessary for an educator to be mindful of this worldview, it is necessary that we don’t just stand like a conventional teacher and dictate new knowledge but actually sit with them at the same level, facing their eyes, and talk about experiences that led to this worldview. The right questions for children will emerge out of these experiences, and depending upon the state of psyche and behaviour, the exercise would aim at a fine balance of individual coaching as well as group learning like in classroom.

Because in their raw, initial state, children will differ in their nature and sensibilities as well as cooperation capacity, for which compassion and trust of the educator becomes indispensable. Only when you have heard their voice, your questions will reach their ears to let dialogue take place. The use of dialogue can become far more effective in the mother tongue of the child, as supported by several studies that establish how children learn better in their own language. Therefore, it is valuable to consider keeping the cultural language of the child an integral part of learning process.       

There is dearth of research on how young children understand inequalities, however, ample evidence exists that young children see “race and gender, endorse pride and happiness with their race and gender group, and endorse positive and negative stereotypes about multiple groups” 11. Therefore, our approach to conversation on such topics will differ based on child’s identity. For example, black children, white children, and children of Mexican immigrants would have varied perception of the self and the other when it comes to race and ethnicity. The same applies to the approaching conversations on such topics with boys, girls, transgender youth, or children who do not identify within a gender binary. At the same time, it is important to reframe these conversations as a normative and consistent part of parenting and teaching.   

While being actively conscious of the existing perception and social identity of child, adults should not let difficult questions on identity go away before they become confusing potholes for these minds. Pick questions that can make them think on certain matters deeply. For instance, why black women should make as much as white women or how can we give opportunities in a fair and morally just manner for both disabled and non-disabled people? And when these questions have been asked, let them undertake a personal inquiry before jumping to conclusions immediately or using means of fear or conformity to fabricate opinions. When questions are difficult, children need to stay with them and that’s where scientific temperament cultivates. This process of sustained inquiry should enable children to ultimately develop identity literacy- “the ability to interpret a racial or gender encounter, reappraise the biased narrative, and to help them know how to effectively cope with or resolve with experience “12. Instead of knowing, the directed goal of understanding these concepts will help them question perspectives and be less conditioned by dominant narratives. An example can be seen in the teaching methods of mathematics Professor Eric Gutstein. At University of Illinois, he made his students investigate significant social themes based on active dialogue in classes where topics included, among others, racism in housing prices, mortgage rejection rates, and police practices; living and working conditions for immigrant farm workers; representation such as maps and changing demographics of region. By reading the world with mathematics through these projects, children gain the sensibility to examine relations of power, resources, and exclusion to identify discrimination and unjust actions 13.            

D. Invest in Safe Learning Spaces to meet the Experiential Gap of Child

An introspective question for adults here is when do we truly establish safety for a child? More so, how do we perceive safety for their growing self and in what ways we believe it will help them eventually if all that world demands are resilience and lack of dependency. But as we understand the extent of psychological and physical challenges that a substantial population of children go through that early, it might be worthwhile to examine the invaluable need for a safe space to pursue authentic learning. Not to create temporary utopias for young minds but to rather develop spaces that transmit the experience of safety in particular. Safety that is equally psychological as it is physical, filled with empathetic listening, trust in questioning, and the culture of companionship.   

Between the adult and the child, there would always be an experiential gap to challenge the efforts of connecting in a humane way. With parents, this gap might be relatively less prevalent but all other spaces including one’s own home can easily turn out to be a disenchanted territory unless there are sincere efforts put in to create a sense of belonging and acceptance. It is a powerful and arduous endeavor to make such a space but indeed worth striving for in order to enable children to experience wholeness in education. Wholeness in which a child imbibes the willingness and ability to cope with his surroundings and relationships while being understanding of one’s own self.

In guiding the path to inclusion and belonging, three prominent spaces can play a pivotal role and therefore can be the focal points of establishing safety: home, classroom, and community learning spaces. Home is closest to our personhood and often children are deprived of this gift for many years, leading to irreparable damage. But as much as possible, a specific focus on protecting children from abuse, neglect and violence is crucial especially by strengthening parental care. In special cases where such an intervention is extremely challenging, classrooms and community learning spaces can play a far greater role, offering not only refuge but genuine human support to lift spirits. The Community Library Project is one such wonderful example of creating positive places for children to engage with deeper education and hone their readership with peers.

Teachers and mentors can turn out to be extraordinary support systems in creating safe spaces. It is vital to invest in government and nonprofit programs that have a focus on enabling children to build emotional resilience, capacity for self-reflection and lifelong engagement with subjects to question worldviews. Classrooms and many such community spaces within schools need to encourage healthy socialization by giving peers enough opportunities to co-educate each other. To dissolve group identity and teach individuality, educators can repurpose their pedagogies in several ways as suggested by both researchers and practitioners 14:

  • Encourage gender neutral playing
    • All play develops skills and competencies. Whether it is about dolls or cars, use different toys to grow both masculine and feminine side of their personalities.
  •  Have a bias for action and demonstrate:
    • Be a role model. Show your children that everyone can help with household chores.
  • Teach them to understand and respect their bodies:
    • Use body exploration as an opportunity to encourage self-care and self-confidence. Sports and Movement Art can be excellent means to educate on something this sensitive.
  • Use classroom as a space to clarify identity concepts:
    • Besides sexism, marginalised girls are viewed through the lenses of stereotypes. Show children that the history of marginalised people is also made of heroes, princesses, and queens.
  • Let feelings come out:
    • Encourage expression and engagement with all kinds of emotions to cultivate empathy
  • Expose them to the power of diversity:
    • Encourage an appreciation of wide range of characters and cultures through various mediums of storytelling.” 
E. Promise Uncertainty and Teach Inclusion as Hope

Let us come back to the childhood discovery, from where our conversation took its first steps. An extraordinary cinematic experience taught me one of the most extreme versions of this discovery, when a few days back I watched this film called Capernaum. From the very first frame, it immersed me into the moral question that would keep coming back to us whenever we will be a witness to the worst of human acts and imbalance of natural world: Is it fair to bring our children to existence when it can be hauntingly painful? The protagonist of this story, 12-year-old Zain, made me contemplate this proposition in the most profound manner when he ended up suing his abusive poor parents in Lebanon for a life of utter misery. His hostile eyes echoed the voices of perhaps millions of young lives who somewhere deserves to question the hard truth. Questions like these can baffle even the most optimistic advocates of human rights; internally it is powerful enough to suffocate our conscience and turn the presence of air around us into an inescapable poison.

The state of human condition will always be in flux- there will be a continual longing for home and love in every corner and diverse lives will have their own struggles. From aspirational urban citizens to indigenous forest dwellers, from girls in authoritarian regime to black lives in white dominated neighborhoods, from lost refugees to alienated transgenders, this struggle can only be understood through an education that aims to not just help children live life but understand it. To deal with his own fate and circumstances, the child needs to realize that often world seen is not the world desired, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. “It’s time to get rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are”.

In his best seller 12 Rules of Life, psychologist and public speaker Jordan Peterson gave important lessons on accepting life as suffering and pursuing meaningful actions to find happiness and fulfilment 15. A key takeaway for me was to teach young minds that “human beings are intrinsically fragile. We can be damaged, even broken, emotionally and physically, and we are all subject to the depredations of aging and loss. This is a dismal set of facts and it is reasonable to wonder how we can expect to thrive and be happy.” It is only through emotional empathy and wholeness that one can gain the capacity to feel the experience of the other. Even in all this diversity, there will always be a universal in terms of faith and emotions and children must learn to understand and apply them in various contexts to educate themselves. Despite initiating dialogue and keeping them in safe spaces, you have to ultimately promise children uncertainty of existence, but at the same time teach inclusion as hope for tomorrow because in the end every soul around us is simply in search of a home.

References:

1 The demon-haunted world: science as a candle in the dark, Carl Sagan

2. It’s never Too Young to talk about race and gender, Anderson R.E

3. UNICEF Statistics

4. UDISE Data

5. The State of America’s Children,

6. Children’s Defence Fund

7. Child Poverty 2020, OECD – Social Policy Division – Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

8. The Third Pillar, Raghuram Rajan, 2019

9. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2019 Revision Migrants by Age and Sex. United Nations, New York, 2019.

10. Children’s Voices One Year After the Nepal Earthquake, UNICEF, and Save The Children

11. Brown, C. S. (2017). Discrimination in childhood and adolescence: A developmental intergroup approach.         

12. Stevenson, H. C. (2014). Promoting racial literacy in schools: Differences that make a difference.

13. Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by Numbers, Eric Gutstein

14. How to Educate a Child on Gender Equality, Believe Earth

15. 12 Rules of Life, Jordan Peterson

Cover Graphic by Srishti Gupta

Author Bio

Farhan is an Associate Consultant at Sattva and primarily works on projects focused on Program Strategy and Research Advisory. Farhan brings experience in academic research, data mining and competency of problem solving, statistical analysis and research frameworks. At Sattva, Farhan has worked on projects focused on organisational development, setting up systemic processes and change management with Raintree Foundation. His experience also lies in quantitative research driven engagements at Sattva, having done extensive data analysis for Longitudinal Migrant Workers Tracking under GFEMS (Global Funds for Endling Modern Slavery) and Agricultural impact of Pest Management Practices for Wadhwani Foundation. In addition, he has also been involved in Sattva initiatives and Thought Leadership focused on Thematic areas of Education.

Prior to Sattva, he engaged with the Teach For India on both field support and as a part of their Strategy & Learning team. Farhan holds a BSc in Applied Statistics & Analytics and PG Diploma in Liberal Arts from Ashoka University (YoungIndia Fellowship). He is passionate about storytelling and creative arts, and actively tries to understand the ways in which stories can be used as a means of education for children.

Tiny Drops Build an Ocean

All the anecdotes, stories, accounts here are narrated in retrospect; thus it’s foolish to assume that these accounts are the exact versions of what happened, because now when I recollect these incidents, I cannot help but juxtapose them against all the new perspectives, social awakening and continuous unlearning and relearning that I’ve done. 

An important part of the dynamic process of learning is, I’ve realised, the development of identity. And I strictly believe that one cannot separate identities from the very idea of governance or politics. However it is difficult to ascertain the exact cause-effect relationship between the two — is it our identities that get increasingly politicised, or do we start depending on our identities increasingly in our politics? 

Whatever it is, we do understand how important identity is for anyone — especially an adolescent. The struggle for a Muslim student in India begins exactly there — we grow up confused. How much of being a Muslim is okay? How much of being a Muslim is deviating from the picture of the ideal secular Indian minority? We were children but this worked at the back of our minds all the time. The school system comes to play an eminent role here. 

I studied in a multicultural metropolitan school where students from each and every walk of life studied with me. The pressure to be aloof and somehow not exert my identity was silent but vicious. You cannot escape it. Your friends could ask you the most insensitive, belittling insulting questions ever about your identity, but you were not allowed to react or voice out your discomfort. You are only supposed to quietly answer their curiosity even if it’s a 15 year old asking whether people of other communities are allowed to enter your house and drink water. This was in 2017.

  1.      

My first introduction to the idea of religion based discrimination was through my father. A 5 year old really didn’t understand what exactly “discrimination” meant. But I intuitively comprehended from the pensive look on my father’s face that it was no joking matter. 

This was partly because my father himself, had to battle systemic discrimination which eventually got dragged out all the way  to the Calcutta High Court. It’s worth mentioning this here because this is an example of systemic discrimination in 2 fields — higher education and judicial proceedings. 

Thus, they were remarkably aware about what it meant to be a minority. From a very early age I was taught not to mention my surname, until and unless absolutely necessary. My name was kept as such, in an effort to ‘assimilate’ into the majoritarian society. No one wants a fate like the Jews, my father often reiterated. 

The notion  of ‘assimilating’, if subjected to scrutiny long enough, will begin to look like ‘hiding’ — hiding our identity. In fact I staunchly believe that assimilation is just a fancy disguise to quietly do away with our religious heritage and identity in favour of safety. I have a beautiful name, but I grew up hating it; thus also ended up hating a part of my identity.

My first brush with discrimination was in the 8th standard. A classmate of mine repeatedly insinuated that I consumed ‘beef’ because of my identity- because I was a Muslim and mocked me repeatedly for it. My friends and other classmates remained silent. Do not get me wrong — I have studied at one of the most reputed and distinguished schools in the subcontinent. Matters were dealt with severity when my parents themselves came to lodge a complaint. The bully never said another word to me.

This incident was only a peek into the vast systemic perpetuation of prejudice. My identity was a disadvantage if I wished to lead a life of safety and dignity. 

  1.   

When I was 14 years old and was studying in the 9th standard, I developed a teenage crush on my classmate. It was the most normal thing to happen at that age and I knew that. But what followed after I confessed my feelings, was definitely not normal and it abruptly catapulted me into a terrifying realization: how deep-rooted Islamophobia runs in the society- Prejudices that ultimately find expression in schools and educational institutes.

I was rejected of course. I would have been salty about it for a few weeks and moved on, had I not foolishly decided to ask why. His answer was simple. 

Because you are a Muslim.’

He was a 14 year old boy.

Love is love until you’re a Muslim. Then your religion is greater than God Themselves.

4.

2019. It was the world cup season. The semi-finals match between India and New Zealand was going on. It was an important match for India — winning would mean they would face England in the finals. My classmates were busy watching the match rather than paying attention to the class.

Like every other cricket lover, I too keenly followed the match. It would have been a normal fun filled period, with occasional sneaky glances at the teacher to see if we were being watched. Till New Zealand took a major wicket which sealed the match for India. There was little chance now for India to win.

I cheered for New Zealand. Which made sense because I chose to support The English Cricket team this season. And I was greeted with a very familiar slogan — a slogan that had been viciously doing rounds on social media and shouted at anybody who dared to not donn their nationalism on their sleeves in every little aspect of their lives, including a sports match. 

“What’s your problem with India? Go to Pakistan, go back!” My classmate in 2019 said this. This is not an incident happening 2 decades back. 

This is real, whether or not schools directly or indirectly promote Islamophobia, the ultimate expression of it is found in classrooms. 

5.

A particular conversation with a very dear teacher of mine, someone I looked up to, someone who genuinely believed in me when I doubted my own abilities, was a heartbreaking one. Perhaps the most painful one too.

It happened because of a problematic post she shared, which was very subtly promoting Islamophobia. This led to a heated discourse on the social media platform which ultimately led me to explore the very complicated arena of student teacher interactions. 

Your teacher inside of the classroom may adhere word to word to the principles of equality written in the book, but outside of it, your innate existing identity might be meaningless to them.

And that is what exactly happened to me. A teacher who loved and appreciated me,  Elizabeth the student, and my abilities and talents simply refused to accept that I as a Muslim have my own identity and opinions —  that Elizabeth as a Muslim exists and deserves the space and dignity to voice her concerns! The dawning of this realization was unsettling — that people who love and support you outside the political context of your being (identity is political after all) might not believe that you deserve basic rights and dignity once associated with your community.

***

For a Muslim student growing up in a cosmopolitan school and environment, embracing every aspect of their identity imposes a significant problem. Largely because we are segregated in ourselves.  We also sense a feeling of exclusion when it comes to cultural differences. We are pestered to bring mutton biryani for tiffin the day after Eid so that our friends can relish it but the moment we discourage them to support NRC CAA we are exerting too much of our ‘Muslimness’.

In all of these the school plays an inadvertently important role. All the media, information, art, politics, debates, conflicts that we consume, both as students and as teachers converge at school. Thus it’s simply not enough to teach 3 chapters on discrimination, prejudice and social awareness in the sixth grade without giving relatable political context.

Paulo Freire’s assertion that teaching is inherently a political tool serves as a gateway to this seemingly complex situation we find ourselves in. The politicisation of our identity demonises us further, by perpetuating false myths. Both of the above statements are contradictory — thus education, armed with a newly undergone change in its political outlook can be perfectly used to counter the other. 

“Knowledge is never truly neutral”, Freire states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The idea that a student will always have multiple identities other than that of an information receiving vessel inside the classroom needs to be normalised till it’s considered natural. Sensitization of students and teachers is all that we need in 2020. More representation of marginalized and minority communities in classrooms and administrative offices in educational institutes will go a long way in imbibing an inclusive attitude in both staff and students alike.

It is difficult for me to conclude this piece because of the lack of years I have on my side. I’m merely 18 years old — I’m yet to experience more subtle and nuanced types of Islamophobia. It is also difficult to end this on an optimistic note — I feel that way I’d be lying to my readers and myself. The situation is bleak. Fascism is here.

The only silver lining on this dark gloomy cloud is that we need to keep educating ourselves consistently. Read books and articles written by marginalized sections. Amplify their voices. Listen to their accounts instead of cynically questioning them. Support and donate to them. Verify and fact check news and sources. Protest. 

Featured Image Source: Pixabay

Author Bio

Elizabeth Hasan is an 18 year old queer Muslim struggling to fill up expensive college forms in this pandemic. A lover of literature and avid reader, she loves to write and dreams of publishing her own poetry anthology someday. Currently she pens and paints her words through her blog: www.scheherazaadewrites.wordpress.com

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