For most of us, Autumn means crawling out from under the duvet at silly o'clock and heading out to catch a bus to school, work or uni in the damp chill of the morning. For me, this season also means getting to know a new crop of young students at the school where I work. They shuffle in, clinging to their parents' legs and, when they eventually peer out, I catch their gaze and introduce myself:
“Hello! I'm Sarah. I'm your new English teacher. What's your name?”
Their little faces usually scrunch up in confusion. This is hardly surprising since my appearance doesn't really fit on the standard scale of Britishness that Italian children have come to expect. I've got the cheery Mary Poppins voice but, if common misconceptions are to be believed, it doesn't match the scarf on my head.
Thankfully, normalizing the hijab is a piece of cake with most children. It only takes a few minutes of friendly chatter for them to see that I'm just a regular girl in my twenties. Tackling important questions like, 'who would win in a water balloon fight – The Hulk or Ironman?' tends to render the hijab practically invisible.
I'm always happy when a child takes the bold step to ask why I'm wearing a scarf though. Afterall, education is all about nurturing inquiring young minds. These questions are always predictably unpredictable. In fact, my typical day involves a mixture of blunt honesty (“your tummy is round, are you pregnant?”), unfiltered curiosity (“Are you bald?”) and wild imagination (“Are you Medusa?”). Then there's my personal favourite which came after a girl's close up inspection of my hijab. She noticed a straight pin sticking out and let out the horrified cry, “Urgh! You staplegun that to your head every day??”
Children's reactions to the hijab aren't always so adorable though. You can be faced with negative assumptions from all ages whether it's a seven year old telling another student, 'Mum says the teacher has to wear it because she married a Muslim,' or a bold twelve year old asking me, 'if I said something bad about Islam, would you have to kill me?'
Although these comments are upsetting to hear, they are great opportunities for us to correct misinformation and present the Islam that most Muslims try to live by rather than allowing negative or false media representations to be the only contact people have with Islam. It's not surprising that someone might harbour a negative view of Muslims if these representations are all they encounter on a regular basis.
We can easily feel disheartened by the real life challenges of interfaith but research and experience has shown that sometimes all it takes to dispel these ideas is simply spending time with someone of another faith or cultural background. In fact, it's surprising how many barriers you can break just by being yourself. One example from my own experience was when a 15-year-old student in my class declared that he didn't like 'muscle men.' Although for a split second I thought he meant bodybuilders, I soon realized he meant Muslims (musulmano in Italian) when he added, 'they are always killing people.' I was unsure how to respond and so I asked, 'well, do you know that I'm a Muslim?' to which he replied, 'yes, and that's what confuses me because you are so nice.'
What struck me most about this incident was that it was simply coming into contact with a Muslim in a real life context which led this teenager to question the negative image he had held of Islam. After we chatted for a while he smiled and said, 'I'm happy we spoke about it. I feel much better now. Thank you.'
Being open to the questions and the concerns of children helps to pave the path for a society which celebrates difference rather than fearing it. We can challenge pre-conceived ideas through our actions so that we are not defined solely by the stereotypes that hover over us like rainclouds, but by how we live and share our lives with others.