• "These ‘scandals’ are not the same ones portrayed in the media, which reports on Islamic schools in the same reductive way that it does on Muslims generally." (AAP)
Teenage 'coming of age' stories, set in the playgrounds of Anglo schoolyards, have more in common with a fictitious Neighbours script than the real-life of Aicha Marhfour. Now a 26-year-old woman, she describes what it was like to be an Islamic-schooled teen in the early 2000s.
By
Aicha Marhfour

3 Mar 2017 - 11:20 AM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2017 - 4:40 PM

I cannot relate to stories of garden-variety Australian school days. Puberty Blues means nothing to me.  It’s as if I arrived from another planet, fully-formed and adult.

Growing up, my parents seemed to me like twins who shared a hive-mind, forever on the same page about everything forbidden. A sample: school camps, makeup, piercings, Neighbours, boyfriends, friendships with boys, tampons, hair dye that wasn’t henna, MSN Messenger, concerts, joining the Girl Guides, unsupervised train rides, hanging up posters, any event that started after 4pm, after-school sports, best friends not related by blood, sleep-overs, Dolly magazine.

This isn’t to say that none of us got up to ‘No Good’, but as Muslim girls in their teens, we had a watered-down version of scandal, where my part was (naturally) as an observer.

Living without these things, I was one of the dorkiest girls in class. And this was at an Islamic school, where most of us were on short leashes.

This isn’t to say that none of us got up to ‘No Good’, but as Muslim girls in their teens, we had a watered-down version of scandal, where my part was (naturally) as an observer. 

There will always be an intrepid reporter nearby to raise ire about Islamic schools and their failing curricula, or their strict uniforms, or the way they treat girls. Ignored in all this, are our seamy inner lives; our preoccupations, our interests, our good days and bad. Our true selves, of which the following is but a glimpse.

Having begged my way to school camp in year 11, I looked on as a teacher searched someone else’s luggage and found some very haram cans of beer.

I listened as our designated school/class wild child described clandestine meetings with her boyfriend on school property.

While I was at a neighboring computer, tending to my Neopets, boys would look at porn, furtive and experimental.

The biggest scandal – talked about for weeks – involved a couple who was expelled from our school after the school principal caught them kissing.

I watched as couples in my year ‘went out,’ a euphemism for a certain type of relationship consisting of a boy and girl taking walks together in shaded areas, with friends on alert for passing teachers. That was it.

The biggest scandal – talked about for weeks – involved a couple who was expelled from our school after the school principal caught them kissing.

My party piece is the Period Room, or as we called it the Rag Room. This is the classroom menstruating girls were relegated to during the compulsory daily prayer, where a teacher would tick off our attendance. “This is your last day,” they would remind us on the seventh, as if we couldn’t know our own bodies.

Detentions were promised for those abusing the system and if we were found in the Period Room twice in one month, they wanted to know why. The level of control was so extreme that we had our cycles tracked.

“We did our best,” my parents say to me now. That doesn’t change that I still have nightmares about not being allowed to choose my own subjects in Year 12.

Sometimes they’ll flip the script and talk about how they stopped us from getting into trouble. There is a whole set of words in various Arabic dialects best used to describe calamities.

By this, my parents are congratulating themselves on preventing teen pregnancies, drug use and any other terrible event which would have brought shame on the family, using language to equate booze-drinking with an earthquake, say, or a war.

But if you’ve grown up with Middle-Eastern parents, you will know that there is a special usage of bahadli, say, or masayyib, which will be used to describe you at least once in your life.

By this, my parents are congratulating themselves on preventing teen pregnancies, drug use and any other terrible event which would have brought shame on the family, using language to equate booze-drinking with an earthquake, say, or a war.

It is true that no catastrophe befell me, besides general unpopularity and the one time I chose to wear a denim bucket hat. But I didn’t learn confidence and enjoy a healthy self-esteem. I grew up as a woman in a microcosm of Middle-Eastern culture, transplanted from the old country to Australia.

These ‘scandals’ are not the same ones portrayed in the media, which reports on Islamic schools in the same reductive way that it does on Muslims generally.

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Now, all these years later, I can speak my family’s dialect, but still have trouble speaking up for myself. We are known for our hospitality, but I can’t unlearn the need to put others first.

Even as my feminism grows and expands, there are relatives who see me as a product on the shelf, still waiting for a man to set the next half of my life in motion.

I know there are rules set down by God, which can sometimes be indistinguishable from those set down by family – that men don’t do the child-rearing or anything domestic, and that you don’t criticise your family in public.

My Islamic school, in concert with a typical over-protective Arab family, gave me a real sense of community that is invaluable; native languages, ‘smelly’ packed lunches, pride in my cultural identity. 

And I know that, as much as my parents now compensate for their harsh, more-stick-than-carrot style of parenting, and as old school friends hit me up in Facebook as though I don’t remember their cruel words in 2004, these things stay with you.

My Islamic school, in concert with a typical over-protective Arab family, gave me a real sense of community that is invaluable; native languages, ‘smelly’ packed lunches, pride in my cultural identity. Just as real, however, are the drawbacks of this upbringing, the effects of which reverberate.

Guilt permeates these words, honest as they are, because we are still discouraged from talking about these things as public. Admitting that aspects of my upbringing were strange and suffocating is opening myself up to the community for criticism.

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But I can deflect any criticism for two reasons:

Firstly, this was my personal lived experience, nobody else’s. My recollections are subjective and my memory is fallible, but it is entirely mine. I spent these particular 10 years in a religious school, swaddled in itchy fabric and inherited perfectionism.

There were times when I was awful and selfish, where my hormones raged, as well as lovely, sun-lit days of laughter and friendship and fun.

And most importantly: these experiences made me the strong-willed person I am today and awakened my political consciousness. Not for nothing was I voted ‘Miss Opinionated’ my by peers as we graduated.

Like every Muslim writer sticking their neck out, I may be accused of pandering to whiteness, not loving my parents, and of being ‘problematic.’ But I know I’m not alone.


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