I wrote this article back in November 2014 for the Times. I was still going through the difficult journey of coming out openly as an apostate and decided to write this piece under the pseudonym ‘Laylah Hussain’. I was afraid of what kind of reaction I would receive for speaking out about my negative experiences in an Islamic school in Britain, and revealing that I have left Islam. Since then I have become much more comfortable about revealing my identity, and I have decided to re-claim this article with my own name. Thank you for taking the time to read it.
Laylah Hussain was 11 when she became a pupil at Jamia Al-Hudaa, a faith school in Nottingham. This is her account of the five years she spent there – a period, she says, that stunted her education and stifled her freedom
My mother thought the girls in our family had run wild. In truth, they were just taking a puff of a cigarette in the park or meeting up with friends, including boys. Ordinary teenage stuff. But in our close-knit Pakistani community there were always “aunties” who’d say, “I saw your daughter smoking,” which distressed my mother because this could ruin a girl’s reputation.
She was determined this wouldn’t happen to me. I was a lively, outdoorsy kid, left to run free and skateboard with my cousins. I loved my school, a local state primary, where I was obsessed with everything scientific, especially space, making rockets from cardboard boxes.
But my mother sought to protect me from the secular culture she thought could ruin my education and prospects. She is a deeply spiritual woman and wanted me to have an Islamic education, not based upon her own adaptable, tolerant South Asian faith but on the literalist Saudi Arabian Salafism she saw preached on Islamic TV channels, which presents itself as “pure”.
She wanted me to become an alima, an Islamic scholar. There was kudos in having such a child, akin to how old Italian families were proud if their son became a priest. I was only 11 years old when she sent me to an Islamic boarding school, recommended by family friends, 120 miles away. My mum kept saying I would become the jewel in her crown. I was packed off with kisses, lots of sweets and bottles of Coke, treated as special in a way that enraged my young siblings.
The Jamia Al-Hudaa school is on top of a hill overlooking Nottingham, although in the following five years I would not visit the city except to see a dentist or doctor. It is a big crumbling Victorian place, a former sanatorium with peeling paint and coarse carpets. It contained 180 girls, most, like me, of Pakistani descent.
Our school principal was a man. We and the all-female teachers veiled our faces when he addressed us. His wife, the head teacher, was a stern, tall woman who floated silently about, seemingly trying to catch us breaking a rule. Our uniform was a floor-length maroon jilbaab and we had to keep our heads covered with a black hijab everywhere except the residential corridors and our bedrooms. I’d never worn Islamic dress before: I’d been going through a goth/skater girl phase back home.
I was so unhappy, for the first year I tried everything I could to get expelled: I skipped lessons, wouldn’t do my homework, argued, made too much noise. But my teachers liked me. I was smart and, because I have a huge hunger for learning, listened in class.
The curriculum was far from that of an ordinary British school. It promises “a new identity which will keep them attached to their Islamic values”. In our first year we learnt Arabic, the medium in which “Islamic sciences” are taught. These include Islamic law, Islamic history, Koranic recitation, Koranic interpretation, the sayings of Muhammad (hadith), a subject dedicated to explaining how Islamic scholars compiled the sayings of Muhammad (usool al-hadith). On top of that we prayed five times a day; sometimes, depending on the time of sunrise, as early as 4am.
The school included the basics of the national curriculum. Besides two hours a day of Arabic, we studied maths, English, RE and ICT (computer technology). We learnt science but without any discussion of evolution, which I didn’t learn until long after I left the school. Pakistani children took Urdu and older girls were offered textiles.
The school wanted to get our GCSEs out of the way as early as possible so we could focus on our intensive Islamic studies. I took Maths, Arabic and Urdu GCSE. I got a B in maths – I think I would have done better later on, but there was no chance of a retake. I failed ICT and couldn’t retake that either. Once you sat the exam, the subject ended.
I don’t remember being taught European history. I left school not knowing about the world wars; I could not point to Pakistan on a map. We were taught Islamic history, which I know not to be history at all, but the stories of prophets and of Muhammad compiled from oral tradition. We were not taught how and why historians collect data: I believed oral tradition was the best source. Islamic law is a detailed study of Sharia, which provides rules to govern every minute detail of your life. I learnt, for example, that you must always step into the lavatory with your left foot first and eat with your right hand.
Our teachers were from different parts of the world so Arabic, Urdu and English were spoken around the school. The teachers were mostly kind women. The food cooked by the local Pakistani community was excellent.
School rules were also framed by Sharia. No make-up, no radios, no music – we could listen to Islamic songs but not any that included instruments. No speaking to or phoning boys who were not family members. We were encouraged not to pluck our eyebrows and couldn’t wear jeans without a jilbaab. No mobile phones, no internet outside of ICT class and restricted TV. We weren’t allowed to watch the World Cup presumably because the men wore shorts above their knees. So we snuck into the primary school which had a TV and video and spent 90 minutes holding up a metal hanger to watch our England heroes walk onto the pitch.
There were no newspapers or magazines. I don’t remember the library having many novels, but it did stock Anne of Green Gables, which I loved because it was about a boarding school. It sounds silly, but my solace and joy when I arrived at school was Harry Potter. How I loved those books: Harry was all alone like me. If only I were at Hogwarts rather than this place, so restrictive and dull. But after a while Harry Potter was banned. The school had apparently decided magic was akin to satanism. You could see our confiscated copies of Order of the Phoenix stacked up in a locked room next to the homework hall.
Anyway, for the first year, I fought the school. I begged to go home, but my mother insisted it was good for me, away from drugs, alcohol and bad grades. My father was opposed to sending me away, but believed the discipline would make me independent and successful in life. I was horribly homesick, bullied by some older girls, and taken under the wing of others. I would speak to my mum as much as possible and she would visit, but it was a four-hour drive.
By my second year, I began to feel cut off from my parents and stopped talking to them about life at school. Friends became like family. I told them everything. Friendships were very intense – we spent so much time together and there was almost nothing to do.
We were always bored. So we loved to bend the rules, sneaking around the building at night, telling each other ghost stories, playing games and creeping into the kitchen at 2am. Some girls would even walk barefoot along the highest point of the school roof, four floors up, just for a thrill. I was always in trouble for being out of bed. Once my punishment was emptying the sanitary bin.
There was little in the way of sport or PE. Even today on its website the school seeks to attract Muslim parents by saying “insecure” state schools promote “un-Islamic activities such as attending mixed swimming classes, and doing PE semi-naked”. We had no facilities. Looking into the little broom cupboard aged 11, I found a few bats, a broken hoop and a tennis ball. After class we’d play dodgeball with an oldbasketball until it wore smooth.
Then there were the room checks. Wardens would turn the contents of our lives inside out. But since our parents had accepted these rules, they could not complain to the authorities.
My parents considered pulling me out of school at 13, but feared it would be difficult for me to adapt to a normal curriculum. Besides, I’d started my GCSEs. So instead I conducted my rebellion in the classroom. During Islamic law classes, I was told that some scholars believe the death sentence is appropriate for gay men. When I tried to reason that maybe homosexuality was natural as God made all humans, there was a huge row.
Under Ofsted’s guidelines for inspectors, it is fine for sex education to be taught under the umbrella term “Islamic studies”. Some pages in our biology textbook pages on sexual reproduction were covered. We did not learn about periods or changes to our bodies. Instead we learnt about sex through Koranic interpretation and Islamic law classes where we were taught marriage conduct.
Men, we were told, are guardians over their wives and we must obey. Our teacher said the Koran gives men permission to beat their wives if they disobey but with a rod no thicker than a miswak (a stick Muslims believe Muhammad used to clean his teeth). This made some of us giggle. One girl said, “My mum would knock Dad out if he hit her with a stick.”
Since it was assumed we would only have sex in marriage, we were not educated on safe practices. We were taught male sexuality is uncontrollable, that it is our job to be modest so men do not fall into sin.
In Britain, we do not have a formal guardian system like in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, we were taught through Koranic verses to regard our fathers and then our husbands as our guardians who will make decisions about our lives. The principles of Sharia, for example, which say that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, were beyond dispute. Not surprisingly, some of my schoolfriends were married straight after school at 17 or 18, ill-prepared for this lifelong commitment.
Our emerging sexuality was repressed, and we were told to be like the wives of the prophet: obedient, modest and pious. As we moved into our teenage years some of us would have our jilbaabs made with a little slit on the side to make them more interesting, as state school girls would shorten their skirts. But by the end, most girls conformed and would never have left home again without their hijabs.
Our books came from Saudi Arabia, beautifully printed and full of medieval ideas. I left school antisemitic. We were not taught to hate non-Muslims, but we were taught the ancient scriptural opinion on Jews and Christians: that they are misguided people who have made God angry. We knew that we were not supposed to behave or think like them. We didn’t even learn about different strands of Islam, such as Shia or Sufi traditions, only about the four different schools of Sunni faith.
There was no sense that we would ever go out into wider British society; we would live our entire lives within a Muslim bubble. Study of Islamic law was to ensure that we would conduct our lives through Sharia courts: after all, Sharia is God’s word; British justice is just the word of man. And we were certainly not equipped for careers, because the Islamic curriculum has no real academic merit. But even as alimas we could not earn a living as male scholars can, working for Sharia councils as judges, or as imams. Women can only teach children or follow Sharia in their daily lives.
One night in 2006, just before I turned 16, two wardens conducted a random room check on me and my two room-mates. Unusually, on this occasion I was given a choice: hand over what you have or if we find anything you will be expelled. I handed over my Lorenzo Carcaterra novel Gangster (as it had swearing in it), a cheap disposable camera and a broken MP3 player. The camera was the worst offence: we were taught that women were not allowed to take pictures, especially without the hijab, in case they are shown to men.
Next day, all girls were summoned to the main hall and before the whole school I was expelled. “Do you see what happens to those who do not follow the rules?” said the head teacher. I felt a dull shock as I was told to leave the place I had considered to be home. My father had to collect me by that evening.
I left school hurt and embarrassed. At home I was a stranger among my family. I would sit in front of the TV crying, wondering what to do. Eventually, I went to Pakistan for a year to study Islam with my sister. Although traditional, this school was freer, in that it offered women the chance to follow Islam in their chosen way. But since the only way I knew was strict adherence to the Koran and hadith, I clung to that and made the decision to wear the veil.
As the year progressed, I became more bigoted than I’d ever been. I was caught up in a storm of self-righteousness and anger at everyone who did not follow Islam as well as I did. I ranted at my poor sister who’d wear coloured hijabs. I would wear all black, even black gloves. I loved being able to hide. I felt protected inside the veil, that God loved me for my modesty.
Then, right at the end of my year in Pakistan, my sister called me up at 11pm and said Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had come out. She’d borrowed a car and was going to buy a copy. Would I like to come? I couldn’t resist and all the way home on the plane I read the book, feeling full of my old joy, some of my religious zeal ebbing away.
When we touched down in Britain I removed my veil at the airport and never wore it again. I felt a surge of doubt about my faith. But at home, as an alima, I was expected to be more Muslim than anyone else. After all my religious schooling, people assumed I would pray regularly, wear a jilbaab and not listen to music. I felt I was placed on a pedestal and should never dare to come down.
But I had to dare – I was being strangled up there. I had no sense of myself, no idea where I belonged. I did not feel Pakistani, British or Muslim any more. The faith that shackled me began to fall away as I decided to take control of my own life and identity.
I realised the vast holes in my education. What I had learnt in Islamic school was not useful unless I wanted to follow Islamic moral codes. I know I am not unintelligent, but realising I was ignorant of basic history and science made me feel ashamed.
So I started to read. First, at my local library, I tackled Darwinism. I had been taught this was a lie created by scientists and in Pakistan I’d read Adnan Oktar, an Islamic creationist who believes Darwinism is the root cause of fascism. But when I opened the Encyclopaedia Britannica to read a fluid description of man’s ascent, I was filled with awe.
I decided to take A levels, but I was not able to do maths or science because it was too long after I’d done my GCSE. I settled for English, sociology and psychology, and pored myself into my studies, reading voraciously to teach myself the basics of British history. I won a place at Brunel University to study English and there my mind took flight. I’d no idea atheists existed until I discovered Richard Dawkins. I remember reading The God Delusion on the Tube wearing a headscarf and jilbaab, Muslim women sitting opposite giving me strange looks. Here, for the first time since primary school, I made friends with non-Muslims. Because I felt I had so much to prove, I worked hard and got a first.
I have lost my faith entirely now and it was a cause of conflict with my family at first. But they have not disowned me, as many would, and have grown far more relaxed about me. I keep in touch on social media with many classmates. Although none has become an atheist, many have moved towards a more liberal Islam. One told me she thought our enclosed lives left her with no confidence in the outside world.
But some Muslims sneer and say, “You just left Islam because you wanted to drink or have sex or take drugs.” That is not true: I just wanted to be free to choose my own beliefs.
To be an apostate carries a death sentence in some countries. Here in Britain, many ex-Muslims are harassed and threatened. But I feel it is my duty to speak out about the private Islamic school system that ruined my education and restricted my future. I cannot understand why the British government allows girls of 11 to be put into schools that set them on a course of separation from mainstream society, to live according to Sharia principles, which can discriminate against them in divorce, inheritance and legal testimony. Because my school was private it did not face the same scrutiny from Ofsted.
It is assumed that girls from my background are happy to be controlled by religious institutions. Ofsted’s guidelines for inspecting faith schools stress that the hijab should not be seen as a symbol of oppression, but as an expression of female modesty. As a woman who felt pressure to wear it, I disagree. Although some women do wear it out of choice, this is not true for girls for whom modesty is part of the school rules.
Children should not be seen only as extensions of their family and faith, but as citizens with the right to integrate and gain a full education. This is also true for children of Christian, Jewish or Hindu parents who are placed in faith schools. How can we expect young people to become free-thinking citizens, for those of faith and non-faith to live side by side, if they are isolated from their peers and leave school prejudiced against other faiths?
I’m 25 now and work as a technician for a medical company, but hope to return to academia. When I think back to my school days I do have some good memories; after all, they encompass my early teenage years. But I still cannot forgive the school for limiting my education and crushing my freedom to think.
Laylah Hussain is a pseudonym
The school’s response:
Jamia Al-Hudaa, Nottingham, provides an education which allows pupils to fulfil a positive role in this country’s multicultural society, while retaining religious practices which are important to them – an opportunity which historically has not always been available. Due to limited resources in the early stages of the school, internet access was available only in the IT suite. (It is now available outside ICT classes.) News stories were curated from the internet by pupils themselves and made available to other pupils. As an Islamic faith school, it has a duty to ensure the reading material in the library conforms with
the guidance provided in Islamic religious texts. That approach did mean some books which might be acceptable in other schools were not included, but it considers the use of the word “banned” in relation to the Harry Potter books to be pejorative and unwarranted. Pupils were not required to empty school sanitary bins as a punishment. The school did not teach that the death penalty was appropriate for gay men. The author was expelled because of persistently poor and highly disruptive behaviour