The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools

In this podcast, taking place on the last day of the Annual EASR Conference in Bern, Dr Philipp Hetmanczyk and Martin Bürgin of Zurich University talk to Thomas White about the Therwil Affair, a controversy that emerged in 2016 after two Swiss Muslim schoolboys declined to shake hands with their female teacher.

The seemingly rather local, minor incident of two boys declining a handshake in a school just outside of Basel escalated into a major national debate, and was reported in news media across the world. As the issue moved from one of school governance, to public values, to law and later immigration, the Therwil Affair became a focal point for national discussions on religious freedom, gender equality, civic duties, multi-ethnic integration and cultural identity in Switzerland.

As the podcast delves into Swiss political history, Philipp and Martin elaborate on both the conservative and liberal cultural narratives which sought to situate the Muslim schoolboys’ refusal to shake hands. They comment that it is not without some irony that amongst the voices who decried the gender inequality implied in the schoolboys’ actions were the same conservative men who had previously argued against women acquiring the national vote: a policy that did not enter law on a national level until as late as 1971 – and in a specific canton as recently as 1990!

Following an explanation of the historical backdrop to contemporary Swiss ‘culture wars’ that the Therwil Affair spoke so clearly to, the discussion moves to how Swiss educational law has shifted subsequent to the Therwil Affair, with schools now expected to report to Swiss Immigration similar instances of supposed integration failure. With schools being understood not merely as centres for education but also as sites for the teaching and reproduction of standardised norms and values, in countries of religious, ethnic and cultural diversity, the tricky question emerges as to what these norms and values are? Perhaps what may be better, as Philipp suggests, is for schools to resist expectations that they should be cultivating a cultural homogeneity, but focus instead on preparing pupils for moments of cultural difference.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools

Podcast with Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin (17 December 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Hetmancyzk and Burgin – The Therwil Affair 1.1


Thomas White (TW): Hello there! I’m here in Bern, Switzerland, at the EASR. We’re on the final day. And I’m joined here by two Swiss early-career researchers, Dr Philipp Hetmancyzk and Martin Bürgin, both from the University of Zurich. And because it’s based in Switzerland, this conference, and we need to really get to grips with issues that are affecting Swiss understandings of religion – and politics and religion – in the public space, we are going to be talking about the Therwil Affair. This, as far as I remember from reading in the international press a couple of years ago, was a big issue, carried on the winds of international press as often sensational religious controversies do. But I suspect I’m not the best person to introduce this to our Listeners. So, Philipp and Martin, what was the Therwil Affair? Can you please explain this for us?

Philipp Hetmancyzk (PH): So, what we now call the Therwil Affair is named, first of all, after the place, Therwil. Therwil is a little town close to the city of Basel, which probably might be better known. In Therwil there was a secondary school. And two Muslim students of that school decided not to shake hands due to religious reasons, as they claim, with the female teacher. And this very local incident kind of became a nationwide affair, a case where the media was involved and reported extensively. Politicians debated about the case, brought it up to the cantonal parliament. And even international media reported about that. So, in the end, it became just a huge thing.

TW: Wow. Well this is unusual and perhaps even rather hard to understand – the importance of handshakes. Are handshakes that important in Switzerland?

PH: And just to correct your introduction – Martin is the Swiss guy here. I came to Switzerland for doing my PhD.

TW: Oh, I beg your pardon!

PH: Just to put that straight. No problem at all. But I think that question Martin definitely has to answer – because I never experienced schooling in Switzerland.

Martin Bürgin (MB): Well, of course. I can answer the question from a very personal level. I mean, I grew up in Switzerland and went to school in Switzerland. And I have to say, I don’t remember that shaking hands was a ritual, a common ritual, at school. Maybe at kindergarten, but definitely not at high school. And if we look to that from a historical perspective and we can go one generation back, it was very common that students were sitting behind their desks when teachers came in. And they had to stand up and say, “Hello” and that was it. So there was for sure, no handshake at all. Whether it is, maybe, on the very personal level . . . ? As a scholar in the study of religions – maybe we can discuss this afterwards – but I would say it’s very interesting to see the handshake as a symbol within a cultural symbol system. If we remember Stuart Hall it is the participants in a culture who give meaning to people, objects and practices. And we can interpret this handshake, or the denial of a handshake as a cultural practice.

TW: Right. So the handshake is symbolic of a far bigger conversation and far bigger issues than just simply, you know, classroom management. But let’s try and get to grips with the actual case study before we try and explore the really big conceptual issues, which will be a fascinating aspect to this topic. Now as I understand it, the school did try to reconcile this issue on its own terms quite early. Is that correct?

MB: Before the refused handshake was discussed on the national and international level, the local school management had already reached a compromise with the students and parents. And, basically, it was agreed that the students should be allowed to acknowledge their teacher with another appropriate, respectful form of greeting rather than being obliged to shake hands with them. So this compromise temporarily exempted the two students from their obligation to shake hands with their female teachers, but at the same time it also forbade them to shake hands with their male teachers.

TW: Right. So . . .

PH: Can I add to that?

TW: Yes, of course. Please do. (5:00)

PH: I think what was at stake here – and it’s kind of the important point also of the whole affair – the whole stressing of the gender dimension of this thing. Since they refused to shake hands with the female teacher, teachers in the school feared that now they will go against the principle of gender equality if they would allow for that, just like that. So they forced the pupils, or convinced them also, “If you don’t want to shake hands with the female teachers, you don’t shake hands with your male teachers either.” Just to stick to the principle of gender equality. It was made a big issue, in this case.

TW: Excellent. So there was an effort to both respect the religious freedom of the Muslim students whilst not transgressing on strong principals of gender neutrality.

PH: Exactly.

TW: But then the issue got a lot larger, didn’t it? The media got hold of it. It ballooned into this national conversation. How was it framed in the media, and how did it kind-of create such a controversy?

MB: It exploded when the Arena, I would say the most influential political TV programme in Switzerland, addressed the subject in two specials, under the lurid titles “Fear of Islam” and “Switzerland without God”. Then a barrage of reports and comments in the media as well. As the demand of concrete political measures, postulated by the politicians of influence on the national level, put pressure on the cantonal authorities and politicians in Basel-Country.

PH: I think we have to add to that, also, that the solution found by the school was just meant as a short time-span compromise. The school wanted to have it fixed on legal terms, so they asked for legal expertise to check into the case. Because the school wanted sort-of defined standards to which they could refer in case something like that would happen again. And so they drew it to a legal level, and this made the whole thing public and raised the media attention. So we have, then, two systems kicking in, both with their own interests: the lawyers, the lawmakers, checking on this issue of gender equality, freedom of religion, educational law; and parallel to that the media echo, of course, trying to make the thing a hot topic.

TW: Were the media discussing it within a legal frame? Were they using legal terminology? Or were they using more populist ways of engaging with the issue?

MB: Yes, definitely. It was about, as we said, the equality of women and men; it was about Islam, and Islam as a thing which has to be feared; it was about Christian culture; it was about liberal culture. And so the whole discussion was not really about the . . . it exploded away from this very local issue.

PH: But that was also possible because the media could connect to other hot topics and hot debates, like building mosques in the public sphere, wearing the burqa and other debates which are currently . . . which already existed before. And the Therwil case was just another piece in that sort-of chain of discussions. But again, this then put it in line with “Swiss Culture versus Muslim immigrant culture”.

TW: Right, so we’ve got this discussion of a kind of culture war taking place – or certainly that framing of the issue. For our listeners who might not perhaps be experts in Swiss culture, or the history of Swiss national identity, what are the key tropes or key narratives that can help us understand the forces behind this conversation, this national debate?

MB: Different narratives here, but I would say one of the most important topics is that of the equality of women and men. For that one has to know that in Switzerland women claimed their right to vote not until 1971, on a national level. And in one specific canton, called Appenzell Innerrhoden, as recently as 1991. (10:00)

TW: Wow!

MB: Following a decision by the Federal Supreme Court – so, not on the basis of the democratic level. But now it’s very interesting to see how the same conservative parties and sometimes also the very same politicians – now a little bit older – which opposed the right to vote for women a few decades ago, act now as the spokesmen for an equality of women and men against – from their point of view –archaic forces which menace Swiss women.

TW: So, those who were strongly opposed to . . . or were at least quite sceptical of women’s rights are now using it as a rhetorical means with which to push against Muslims within Switzerland.

PH: It was sort of instrumentalised, I think. I mean, maybe adding to that from a sort-of outsider perspective on Swiss cultural narratives – which are kind of complex, I would also say, which is fascinating . . . . Because you have this narrative of Swiss history and culture as being very liberal, with kind-of a lot of referendums, having a very strong sense for democratic procedures. But on the other hand you have still strong institutions like the army, with sort-of an idolised “male warrior culture”. And also, the national hero figure as the guy with the strong bow, shooting the apple, right? Wilhelm Tell.

TW: We know the music, yes.

PH: And there’s also a strong sense that it is not . . . The army is part of the wider population. Every male guy has to go to the army, takes the weapon home. So whenever there is need to defend the country, they are ready. And this thing is still kind-of going strong, I have the impression. Maybe not as much, of course, as 30-40 years ago. But if I compare it to Britain and Germany, for example, I think it makes a difference here, where you still have that argument as . . .

TW: So are we perhaps looking at a machismo which is defending women from insults, as opposed to really seeking to enforce gender equality.

PH: I would not go that far.

TW: That’s too far.

PH: But the Therwil case definitely kind of was instrumentalised to push the argument forward, “Look at the Muslim minorities. They have an issue with women’s rights.” But we don’t look at our own shortcomings. Because we are very liberal – although you can put many question marks behind that.

MB: The narrative I described before, that was more like the conservative narrative. And of course you have another narrative which I would describe as a liberal narrative. So the liberals in their motion, when the whole this was discussed in the local cantonal parliament, they described a refused handshake as a symbol – I could cite that I guess – for a fundamentalist and militant ideology – so you hear that in their own words – which contradicts our state and social order which is built on personal freedom, legal equality and the equality of men and women. And that’s a different thing. As the conservatives would propose. So for the liberals these are the three pillars of society. And now from the perspective of a history of concepts, maybe it’s interesting to see that if we replace the equality of women and men with the rather old-fashioned term of brotherhood – of course, produced in times of pure male hegemony – we get the very familiar trio of liberté, égalité et fraternité. And that’s the slogan of the French Revolution which is essential for the self-conception of the Swiss Liberals, that they wanted to defend.

TW: So on the one hand, we’ve got the liberal narrative of equality and Enlightenment values, (15:00) and then on the other hand we got the conservative . . .

MB: defending of Swiss women.

TW: And so we’ve kind-of got this strange confluence of cultural narratives being allied to push against migrant and specifically Muslim identities and interests. It’s fascinating. Moving away from perhaps the cultural discussion to more the legal issue – because it did become a legal discussion as well – how was that framed, and what were the arguments on either side?

PH: I think at least one power play that played an important role here was “civic duties versus religious freedoms”. And some politicians brought it forward that civic duties should be given primacy over religious freedoms. And this whole trope, or this logic, has a history in itself. And probably Martin can say a little bit more about that, because it goes also back to this culture war.

MB: Yes that’s true. The concept of primacy of civic duty is also connected with a narrative, with a political narrative. It comes from the Federal Constitution of 1874. It was the first revision of the first constitution of the modern Swiss State, which came from 1848. And both constitutions were products of conflict situations between the Catholic conservative camp and the liberal camp. The constitution of 1874 and the so-called primacy of civic duty – that is a product of pure culture-war politics. This constitution, as well as the first constitution, served as a warrantor of the – at the time – liberal radical majority and was directed against the Catholic conservative minority. So they served as a dispositive of power.

TW: So how does this fit? Is this more kind-of ensuring the loyalty of the Catholic community to the Swiss State, as opposed to Rome? Or the civic duty – it has some very strong policy implications even today, doesn’t it? But . . .

MB: Yes, that was expelled from the Constitution. So it’s not any more in the Constitution, at the national level. So they want to reintroduce that, or wanted to introduce that on a cantonal level, after the so-called Therwil incident. Yes the constitution – as you said – of 1874: that was a political instrument to weaken the Catholic conservative camp. I mean, it included things like the suppression and ban of the Society of Jesus, and the prohibition of the establishment and re-establishment of monasteries in Switzerland, the removal of the right to be elected as members of the National Council for Roman Catholic priests – so not very democratic for Roman Catholic priests – and restrictions against the formation of new Roman Catholic Dioceses in Switzerland. That was a pure culture war product.

TW: And this narrative of civic duties was being mobilised to push against the religious freedom arguments.

PH: It was brought up again, yes, interestingly. Although it has this kind of history package. But in the end they had to drop it again. They did not . . . . Although it was brought up in the discussion, if it should be included in the constitution again – in the cantonal constitution – you have to say. But it was dropped, because of course it was a lot of legal question marks behind if that was still possible. Anyway, to your question about the legal framing – because that’s not it – what they still introduced is that cases like Therwil have now to be reported to the bureau of immigration affairs by the teachers. This is now part of educational law. And since you asked how this changed the perspective since the Therwil case . . . . Because it is clear, now, that you can now bring it up to the Bureau of Immigration Affairs, then the whole issue of religious diversity in the classroom is now being reduced to an issue of immigration questions.

TW: So we’ve got an incident that takes place in the classroom now being an issue of immigration. Is there more to the story, there? (20:00) I mean, were the two Muslim school children, were they recent immigrants, or were they citizens, or . . .? It seems strange to have . . .

PH: I think it was second generation kids. But probably not citizens, yet.

MB: I think from Syria, yes.

TW: Oh, wow. Ok. So we’re starting to almost get integration issues starting to be . . . integration at the national policy level being focused on what’s taking place in the classroom.

MB: I think that was why politicians took the whole issue on the national level: to speak about questions of migration and immigration – and maybe not that much about handshakes.

TW: Yes. So carrying over into broader anxieties and concerns about immigration to Switzerland. Is that how it relates to other controversies? We were suggesting, earlier, that there are other points of conflict, perhaps, between the national narrative of culture and immigrant communities.

PH: Yes. And actually, talking about immigration, I think there’s . . . we already mentioned like the burqa, the mosques, the minarets. But I think what we forgot so far is also the debate about immigration as such – because that’s big topic, too. This is about the integration of Switzerland in wider Europe. Because Switzerland kind-of experienced a huge influx of foreign workers from all around Europe. And this led also to an intensive debate about immigration, local culture, fears of local customs and Swiss culture sort of dying out. And I think this was just another issue to which the Therwil thing could be associated.

TW: Yes, so the site of the school being very much a focus of identity politics. And through the conference we’ve been hearing kind-of papers that have explored the idea that schools are not simply places where people learn, but almost centres of ideological production; where children are inculcated with certain values and certain behaviours and certain perspectives. What do you think are the implications for education, as such, when it gets drawn into these kind of national controversies of culture, citizenship, and diversity?

PH: To answer the first part of your question, I think it’s still the case and schools, of course, are places where you learn about mathematics, where you learn about literature, but also from a Religious Studies perspective, school is definitely still a place which is imagined by wider society as a place where its norms and values are being taught and reproduced. So I think this has not gone. But the question is definitely: what norms and values do you want to teach in school? And I mean, this was also debated in the Therwil case. Because it was said, “Yes – all schools should be a place where they learn to cope with difference; where they should learn about diversity; individual peculiarities; tolerance; respect and so on. But then, what actually happened was that they used this argument to basically out-rule religious diversity in the form of two Muslim guys rejecting the handshake. So there was then, rather: “OK, the school should be a place where norms and values are practised, but these norms and values are not in accord with what these two guys, what the two boys did.” So that put a very strong vision of what schools should be and what norms and values should be practised in school, and what does not fit in to the school.

MB: But of course we don’t have any definition of what these values and customs should be. I mean the cantonal government spoke of, “considering the increasing migration of people with various ethnic and religious backgrounds, it is essential that those people respect our laws our values and our customs.” The cantonal government, you can hear it, doesn’t give us a definition of what these values and customs should be. But clearly we can see a constructed dichotomy of a “we” and “the others”; a construction of identity through alterity. (25:00)

TW: Fascinating.

PH: There was a second part of your question which has stayed unanswered so far. And that was how this kind of national debate about school . . . and what would be the impact on school being connected to citizenship, and what would be an alternative way to deal with such national issues in terms of education? And I think what would definitely help, in such cases like we have in Therwil, is that students and pupils are kind-of equipped with the competence for religious questions. That means also not from a religiously normative perspective, but just having knowledge and competence about religion. So they can basically critically evaluate such debates by themselves, and also kind-of learn to understand what is at stake here. And that then brings me again back to the study of religion as a discipline. Because I think implementing contents from the study of religion in school curriculum would help a lot. For example, to equip students to kind-of get an opinion on such things, by themselves.

TW: Yes. So the handshake isn’t so much a moment for discipline or enforcing national homogeneity or cultural integration but a pedagogic opportunity, perhaps: where the kids in the classroom can actually think about where people come from in different perspectives, regarding the religious values that cause them to physically interact with people in different ways. I suppose the question I want to conclude with is, what is the policy position now? Where are we regarding handshakes in Swiss schools?

PH: That’s a very good question actually. The media attention has gone by now, because the debates are all through. The media is now already onto the next event. And to the next stuff. So what kept almost unnoticed is that the debates in the parliament went through, with the respective change of law as we described earlier. So the civic duties over religious freedoms has not become part of the Constitution, but teachers have to report to the immigration office such incidents. What is done now is kind-of out of the media attention. And the case now, with this, is more or less settled. But with the respective political outcomes which you can see as . . . . Yes, it will have an influence on further cases. Because there’s now a kind of pre-structure for the way of how to handle such cases. This is what the politicians wanted, but which is also kind-of giving away the chance to probably have a more thorough debate on religious diversity in school. This chance is now, somehow, out.

TW: Yes. Well thank you very much Martin and Philipp. This was an extremely stimulating conversation. Any final comments before we sign off and say farewell to our Listeners?

MB: (Laughs).

TW: I think we’re all keen to enjoy a beer, now, at the end of the conference!

MB: And the next media scandalisation in Switzerland will come, for sure! (Laughs).

PH: Definitely! (Laughs).

TW: Wonderful! Thank you very much for that.

PH and MB: Thank you.

Citation Info: Hetmancyzk, Philipp, Martin Bürgin and Thomas White. 2018. “The Therwil Affair: Handshakes in Swiss Schools”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 17 December 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 14 December 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-therwil-affair-handshakes-in-swiss-schools/

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Preserving identity and empowering women. How do Canadian Muslim schools affect their students?

In this interview, Dr. Jasmin Zine talks about Muslim schools in Canada and their impact on their students’ identity development and integration in the society. Having served for decades as a tool to preserve a particular religious identity, Islamic schooling also plays a crucial role in empowering female students. In some cases, Muslim schools have become a safe haven, especially for women, “a place where their identity is not in question, where they can feel safe and comfortable”. Also, Dr. Jasmin Zine describes to Mariia Alekseevskaia the challenges which Canadian Muslim schools face today, including a difficulty to promote critical thinking and “the spirit of debate” while teaching about religion as well as maintaining patriarchal religious cultures. Lastly, professor Zine discusses academic colonialism and shares her personal story of what it means to be a Muslim woman in academia.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Preserving Identity and Empowering Women: How Do Canadian Muslim Schools Affect Their Students?

Podcast with Jasmin Zine (29 October 2018).

Interviewed by Mariia Alekseevskaia.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Zine_-_Preserving_Identity_and_Empowering_Women_1.1


Mariia Alekseevskaia (MA): Hello. My name is Mariia Alekseevskaia. I’m here in Ottawa, at the Summer Feminist Festival, and it’s my pleasure to welcome one of its key speakers, Dr Jasmin Zine, Professor of Sociology, Religion and Culture, and Muslim Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her areas of research include Islamic feminism, Muslim education and Islamophobia. She has been involved in the national study on the impact of 9/11, and domestic security policies on Muslim youth in Canada. Also, as an education consultant, she has developed award-winning curriculum materials that address Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism. Today we are going to talk about Muslim schools in Canada, and their impact on their students’ identity development and integration into society. To start this discussion, could you please first explain what Islamic schooling in Canada is?

Jasmin Zine (JZ): Yes. Thank you for the question. Looking at Islamic schooling in Canada, there’s actually many forms that it takes. There are a number, and a growing number, of full-time schools – Islamic schools – which teach the Ministry curriculum in whatever province they exist, as well as sort-of Islamic studies. And that’s usually taught in terms of Arabic and Qur’an, but also often tends to try and integrate Islamic knowledge into what would be considered secular subjects, whether it is science, or world issues, or mathematics. And so that’s one form that Islamic schools take is in the full-time school. And those are – at least in Ontario – they’re not funded. Only Catholic schools are funded in Ontario. So they’re, in that sense, private schools. But not private, in the sense of being elite. They’re community-based schools. The teachers there, some have Ontario’s teacher certification and Bachelors of Education. Others don’t because it’s not a requirement for private schools in Ontario to have certified teachers. So many aren’t trained in pedagogy or in education, specifically. They’ve obtained post-secondary degrees, usually outside of Canada. And they, when they come to Canada they often elect to teach in an Islamic school, as opposed to finding other jobs, for which they often . . . find themselves under-employed, even though they’ve got education and qualifications. Because it’s very difficult to find jobs in Canada, even when you’re qualified, if you’re here as a foreign professional. So they end up working within Islamic schools. So that’s a bit about the formal full-time Islamic schools. There are also weekend schools, what they call madrasa, that usually happens on a Sunday or a weekend. And that’s where children who are attending public school will go on the weekend – kind-of like a Christian Sunday school, for religious instruction. So they have that. And they also have the hifz schools, which is where children go, generally full-time, to learn the memorisation of the Qur’an. So that’s another kind of Islamic school that exists. And then there’s also informal sites of Islamic education through things like Summer schools, summer camps, halaqah – Islamic study circles that are held in Mosques and sometimes outside of them as well, through Community Centres and so on. So a lot of that informal education also happens in addition to the formal types of Islamic education that have developed in Canada, over the last couple of decades.

MA: And if we talk about full-time Muslim schools in Canada: in your opinion, how have they influenced their students during the last several decades, as they existed?

JZ: Well, my research has been primarily in Ontario, and I looked at four full-time Islamic schools with a number of concerns in mind. And if you’re asking me how it has influenced or impacted Muslim youth: I think the idea of these schools was so that they would have a sort-of faith-centred education, and that they would have a strong grounding in their identity as Muslims. And they also became a sort of safe haven for Muslim children and youth who, in the public system, have to deal with racism and Islamophobia – particularly girls who are dressed with Islamic attire. Whether they’re wearing hijab, or more modest clothing, or wearing niqab as well, many of them find Islamic schools to be a place where, you know, their identity is not in question. And where they can feel safe and comfortable. So I think it does provide that to the community. I think that they also have been . . . Islamic schools have also operated in ways where parents see them as a kind of way to sort-of discipline wayward youth. So if some youth have been getting in trouble at school, or with the Law, or getting in difficulties like that, that’s seen as kind-of coming out of being in a public education system that doesn’t have the values and discipline of Islamic teachings and an Islamic environment. They will often send their children or youth to Islamic schools as a kind of place of rehabilitation for these youth. So that’s another way, or role, that Islamic schools play within the Muslim community. I think that in terms of impact, it’s a very big question. There’s lot of positive impact in that. But there’s also some negatives as well. My book went through a lot of those things, and it would take a while to enumerate everything. I myself had my sons go to Islamic school after about Grade Five in public school. Because I did want them to have a sense of their identity and a sense of their belief and faith. And so they did go to Islamic school, you know. But I found that, given that, the education is not necessarily even. Where you have some teachers who are certified, some who are not, the quality of education was very uneven. And I found that to be difficult. Over time, as well, I also found that some teachers, even though they’re teaching subjects like math or science, would take it upon themselves to offer their Islamic teachings to the students – which were often really problematic, and coming from certain cultural backgrounds, in a very unauthorised way. They were offering their own sort-of take on Islam to the kids in the classroom. And I would hear things my sons would come home and tell me, which I knew were not correct. And then have to constantly be correcting what they were picking up. So that wasn’t coming from the Islamic Studies teacher, it was just coming from, you know, teachers who weren’t educated in Islamic Studies, but still felt that because they were in an Islamic school they could offer their views. And those were a lot also of the growing pains of Islamic schools. My kids were in school a number of years ago. More than a decade ago. So at the time I was doing my study on Islamic schools, as well, a lot of them were fairly new, but there were many of them. There were about 36 full-time schools in Ontario at that time. And otherwise students were, academically, in many of the school . . . . They have, in Ontario, the EQAO which is a sort of standardised test that all schools do and Islamic schools were doing very well . . . or the students there were doing very well, on that level, academically. You know, but in other ways I think. . . I go through a lot of these things in my book. There were definitely challenges that schools still have to overcome. And the issue of how well-prepared are the graduates to go into university? I only know anecdotally, because I do know many graduates of Islamic schools who’ve then moved on, but there are definitely challenges for them going from a fairly sheltered system into a large university that is co-ed, and that is not sheltered in that sense. So there are some challenges there, as well. But I don’t think anyone’s done a study, as yet, that actually maps the transition of students from full-time Islamic schools to any form of post-secondary. But that would be interesting.

MA: And in the monograph – this book that you have just mentioned which was issued ten years ago –you explain the role of faith-based schools in preventing this split of identity of students which they could have in a public school. Do you think the challenges which Muslim kids face in a public school today are different from those which their counterparts faced ten years ago?

JZ: Well right now, we’re talking about a generation of youth that I refer to in my upcoming book as the 9/11 generation of Muslim Youth. And just 2 days ago I was in a forum and there was a 14 year old who was talking about the impact of Islamophobia and how she’s often reticent – she’s in public school – to tell people that she’s Muslim, because she’s actually in fear of her physical safety, because of, you know, possible reprisal. People’s views about Muslims can be very distorted and based on negative and false stereotypes and very sensationalised media representations, so that she prefers not to sometimes identity herself as Muslim to people she doesn’t know. And the way she said it was, “Well, I don’t want to get jumped after school.” So you know there is . . . and this is where my current research has really been looking at, is: what is the impact been of this sort of 9/11, the War on Terror, ongoing security policies, ongoing imperial wars, and an escalation of Islamophobia? What impact does that have on Muslim youth and their sense of identity, citizenship, belonging, and so on? And so my current study is looking at this very issue. So I think for, you know, when I talked ten years ago about the sort of split identity that some Muslim youth experience, because when they’re in public school, because of the fact that they often are shielding their identity or they’re trying to pass in other ways, they may not want to be identified as Muslim. So some would, for example, anglicise their name. Or some would . . . for example, girls might wear more modest clothing when they leave the home or wear hijab, and when they get to school they take it off. You know, so this is where that split personality tends to come in – when there’s a conflicting set of expectations at school and home. There’s no cultural consistency between what your expectation is at home and what’s at school. So you have competing cultural demands. And that’s where that split happens. So when kids are going to an Islamic school and they’re coming from a practising Muslim home, there’s more congruence with the values and expectations, in that sense. But youth are also trying to figure out their own identity in the midst of all this. So I’ve also found in my current study that Muslim youth – this 9/11 generation – when it comes to their sense of identity, are either investing more in that identity because of the fact that their identities are under siege . . . . So they’re investing more in that identity to sort-of be able to stand up and counter and speak to, you know, the way that their community and their own identity is being vilified . And others are going through an estrangement, where there are, again, distancing themselves from their identity as Muslims, in order to avoid backlash. So I’ve identified that kind-of investment or estrangement from the identity, depending on how it’s affecting them as individuals.

MA: Do you think this Islamophobia in Canadian society, and racialisation of this society, impacts the decision of Muslim parents to prefer a religious school to a public school?

JZ: You know, when I did my study, it started in the late 1990’s into 2000, so it was just ended prior to 9/11. But even at that time, that was one of the issues as to why parents were choosing to send their kids to Islamic schools. So one of the issues was the fact that their kids were experiencing racism and discrimination – Islamophobia – within the public system. So this was pre-9/11, and of course Islamophobia long predates 9/11. It didn’t just begin on September 12th! So these issues were happening even prior. So definitely, since then, there’s been an escalation of that type of scrutiny, and negative attention, and troubling stereotypes that Muslim youth – this 9/11 generation – have to deal with. So it would definitely still be, I think, one of the reasons that parents would look to Islamic schools as an alternative for their kids. But I haven’t done a study to follow up on that in the post-9/11 context. But the research that I’m doing now, which looked at 130 Muslim youth across Canada, right from the East Coast to the West Coast, looking at their experiences – most of them actually were in public schools, some of them had been in Islamic schools as well, sort of in and out. Muslim kids often migrate in and out of Islamic schools. So they might be in there for their early formation, in elementary school, but then their parents may switch them to public high school, and so on. But definitely, a lot of them spoke of the kinds of alienation and discrimination they faced in school, as well as in post-secondaries, as well as in universities. So it’s definitely something that youth are still dealing with and I think it would therefore make Islamic schools seem like a safe haven.

MA: And many researchers who study religious schools have a concern about whether the schools are able to promote autonomy and critical thinking. Out of your research, based on your research, what kinds of tools do Muslim schools use to develop critical thinking in their students and build them as responsible citizens?

JZ: Right. Well I think the issue of critical thinking, a lot of it depends on the teachers themselves, and whether they’re well-trained in pedagogy to be able to help students become critical thinkers. And again, that tended to vary on whether the teachers had experience or had trained in education, versus those that hadn’t. Because those teachers often who weren’t trained specifically in pedagogy, did more things like rote learning. So, with rote learning, there isn’t that space to question and challenge, or interrogate. You’re just memorising, right? So teachers who were trained specifically with Bachelors of Education and Ontario teaching certificates, had a broader set of strategies and ideas and philosophical understandings of education, and how to integrate critical thinking within that. So they definitely did promote it in different areas. When it comes to religion and religious knowledge – because remember these schools are teaching, you know, also secular subjects and religious subjects. So in terms of secular subjects I think you know there’s definitely a focus on thinking critically and being able to challenge and question and analyse. Within the religious component as well, I think that those bases were far more closed to be able to question and challenge tenets of the faith or ideas around it. I mean, I think asking questions was one thing. But having the freedom to really be able to question seriously – I don’t think that that space was there. I think that in a lot of spaces, even when students, let’s say, graduate from an Islamic school, they tend to go to university and if they join the Muslim Student association, you know, that’s another sort of space where . . . they are spaces of knowledge production, as well, around Islam. And those spaces, you know, get a little more open. But there’s definitely still a certain culture, a way of promoting specific kinds of religious practices and so on, that is sometimes pretty uniform. And you have to adapt to that cultural environment, right? So unfortunately, I think that the spirit of debate and interrogation and questioning around Islamic tenets, and around Islamic knowledge in general, has not been evident in the way Islamic schools are teaching the faith and the tradition. And therefore, I think, with a lot of youth that is something they end up often confused later in life. Because they were really . . . religion was something explained to them that is black and white. And I find that they look for that. They are sometimes uncomfortable when they do find out about the grey areas. So, for example when I’ve taught . . . . I used to do Gender in Islam at the University of Toronto. And I had predominantly Muslim students, some who came through Islamic school, and some who came through public schools. When I would talk about things that challenged their conventional knowledge about gender in Islam, they had a very hard time with it. When they found out that there was actually a broader path of Islam than the narrow one that they had been socialised and educated about in the traditional channels of Islamic education – whether through their madrasa, or through their Islamic schools, or through the mosques and the halaqahs, they often get a very black and white sense. And when they come to university and we are representing it in a much broader way based on, you know, looking at the historical tradition, looking at a vast array of knowledge that they’re not usually getting before they come to university, they have a very hard time with that. And I’ve had students say things to me like, “But why does it have to be so open-ended? Why can’t people just go in a room and then tell us what is right and wrong?” And I said, you know, “Well, why would you want that, first of all? Why would you want people somewhere sitting and defining your faith for you? Who would be at that table?” Right? And, “Don’t you want to be at that table, too? To ask questions and to challenge and so on..?” So they were very much used to being socialised into things that are sort-of black and white. So the grey areas confused them. And I think it is really about religion is something that people hold onto for a sense of certainty. So if you start to say, “Well yes, the faith says this and it says that – but it also says this,” then they’re confused. Because, “Just tell me which one I’m supposed to follow!” Right? So they have a hard time reconciling the multiplicity of ways that we can actually interpret the hermeneutics of faith have become more open, right? It’s been different in the development of other faiths. In Christianity and Judaism there’s been, I think, a longer tradition of looking at religion in a broader way. In Islam, I think that we’re starting to come to that because now we have things like feminist hermeneutics of the Qur’an. So this knowledge of academic knowledge hasn’t filtered down to the Islamic schools, or to the mosques, or to the halaqahs, or weekend schools. So they start to get that when they get to university, and it confuses them in many cases. And sometimes they also have a sense of dissonance within that. And I think it’s a very sort-of critical time where they are trying to, now, outside of the confines of their community – Islamic schools and so on and family and community environment – and are in a very different kind of very plural space, trying to sort out their sense of identity, their relationship to their faith. And once they see that there’s more options within it, and where they fall on this sort of continuum of belief, and their own journey within the faith . . .

MA: I think it’s only during the last years that Muslim community is more and more changed by the society. And you know that in Canada there have been long debates about religious symbols in public space, and predominantly female weighting – so always targeting Muslim women in those kind of discussions. And, in your opinion, do Muslim schools empower or disempower female students? What is the influence of the schools on female students?

JZ: Well first, just to respond about the sort of gendered Islamophobia in Canadian society, and it is very much there now in policies, as we know, in Quebec. There’s been the Quebec Charter of Values, which is trying to ban the niqab in public spaces. Even prior to that there’s been attempts to ban hijab whether they’re on soccer fields, or banning niqab at citizenship ceremonies, and so on. So Canada has a history of this sort-of gendered Islamophobia that’s been enshrined in various policies that we have. So of course this has an effect on the day-to-day lives of Muslim girls and women. So it’s another reason why often parents are more comfortable having their daughters in Islamic schools. But it isn’t just the parents, it’s actually the girls themselves, who feel more comfortable in an Islamic school environment. Because, you know, if they’re wearing hijab it’s not an issue, if they’re in niqab it’s not an issue. However, those who aren’t necessarily wanting to wear the hijab – you know, it is part of the school uniform in the Islamic school, so when they’re in school they have to wear it – when they leave sometimes they just take it off, because it’s not a consistent practice for them. So it is considered part of that uniform at the time that they’re in school. But outside of veiling, there’s other still, what I found in my study, some patriarchal understandings about Muslim women that are a large part of how the religion has been interpreted, right? Because it generally has been men, historically, who interpret religious texts. As I said, we’re starting to see more feminist hermeneutics, we’re starting to see more women involved in that exegetical practice of looking at Islamic text, and finding other more gender-neutral meanings to the way that it’s been traditionally understood. And there are, in other ways, just patriarchal structures of governance and of understanding Muslim girls, and how to develop them into Muslim women, that come from fairly, I think, patriarchal understandings of notions of piety and notions of . . . . You know, one of the things I talked about was this idea of honour. And that it wasn’t really . . . you know, if girls were sort-of stepping out of what were considered the legitimate boundaries of Islamic behaviour for young women, it was really compromising the honour of the school. So girls were, in some schools, kept very regulated in terms of their movements outside of school. So during school hours they had to be at the school, whereas boys had more freedom to, let’s say, go to Tim Horton’s at lunch, sort of thing. It really was about regulating and controlling the behaviour of the girls because parents are sending them there in order to be in a particular environment – a sheltered environment. So if they’re seen sort-of running around, then that would also be compromising for the school’s reputation. So, you know, there was that happening. But there were a lot of ways that . . . So how it’s empowering for girls is, you know, the freedom to dress in a modest way, to wear the hijab, or niqab and for that not to be source or harassment, daily harassment and micro-aggressions, and now as we see a lot of violence as well. So it’s that safe space, in that sense. And also because the classes are gender-segregated from about grade 5 or 6, and right through the high school, there is a sense of freedom that a lot of them talk about, and that research has also shown, about female-centred educational spaces, where girls actually develop a stronger voice, a stronger sense of being able to speak in class and put their views forward. Because when they’re in a co-ed environment, it’s often boys who gain the floor to answer questions. And there’s also sometimes . . . you know, all these sorts of little tensions: you like this guy, so you don’t want to say anything, because you don’t want him to think you’re stupid, or whatever! Those kinds of interactions that happen. And just a lot of things like mansplaining, right? Men who think that they always have the answer and have the authority. And so that can be stifling for girls. So in a female-centred educational space, there’s a lot of empowerment for them, because they don’t have those impediments of having boys or men in the room. . . . And another sense of empowerment that young women have is that they can actually lead spiritually centred lives in these schools, in ways that you can’t in a secular education system. So I mean that’s something for everyone, but I think also for a lot of the girls. They talked about that – about really being a space where your actions weren’t just something that’s existential, but it’s something that you look at for the afterlife, right? So they have this concept of the achirah, or the life after – the afterlife. And so a lot of the way that they understood their behaviour, their actions, and their motivations had to do not just with the existential issues they’re dealing with, but how they wanted to be in the afterlife. So that ability to be in a spiritually-focussed space was also something that was empowering.

MA: Have you ever had to struggle as a scholar, because you are a religiously-oriented Muslim woman?

JZ: Do you mean in the Western academy, have I ever had to struggle?

MA: Yes.

JZ: I think for all women of colour in general, and I am a woman in colour as well as being a Muslim . . . . When I started in the academy I wore . . . . No, before I started a full-time job in the academy, for about 17 years I wore a hijab. When I was looking for work I had sort of de-jabed around that time. [This is a term Muslim women use to describe their decision to stop wearing the hijab.] But not specifically because I was looking for work, but because my understanding about the hijab and whether I wanted to wear it, the way I saw it within the context of my faith had changed, after a lot of study and a lot of consultation. But it didn’t hurt that fact that I was also in the job market. I think it would have been a lot more difficult for me to land a job if I was wearing the hijab, particularly in social sciences. And I was in Sociology, which is traditionally a very left-focussed kind of discipline. And when you wear a hijab, especially like 14 years ago when I was looking for work, there was a tendency for people to presume that you’re very fundamentalist, conservative and maybe right-wing in your beliefs. So I found, when you wear the hijab you have to really perform your politics for people, because they have a lot of judgement about you on a number of levels, but also politically. And so I think some of that has changed now – but definitely at that time it would have always been about reassuring people that I wasn’t a sort-of right-wing fundamentalist, and then I would constantly have to perform my politics. So at that time I wasn’t wearing the hijab. But I did have a friend who actually was looking for a job in Religious Studies and she made the decision at that time to actually de-jab because she didn’t feel she would get a position in Religious Studies if she was wearing a hijab. Because there, in particular, you are expected to be neutral, right, when you talk about religion or talk about the subject of study? And if you have a religious identity, I guess they perceive it as being biased. And so, for that reason, she de-jabed. But my experience, you know, was for a very long time the only person of colour in my department. You know, there’s always challenges to that. There’s not a lot of racially marginalised women in the academy in general, in Canada. There’s more that are coming in but, those of us who have become more senior scholars, there’s fewer of us. And we also end up being mentors to racial minority students on campus, Muslim or not. So there’s a lot more responsibility on us that the universities don’t recognise. There’s a lot more emotional labour that goes with that, that the university don’t value or recognise. And then we also often, as I do, play a role as public intellectuals in the community. So we become scholar activists. We are working both on the academic side – we’re also looking, doing community development, which I have done, in addition to academic work. I’ve started organisations in the community like MENTORS: the Muslim Educational Network, Training and Outreach Service. And we were an advisory board to the Toronto District School Board. And we also started an organisation that actually brought together all Islamic schools under one sort-of banner, as well as doing anti-Islamophobia curriculum teaching and training. So that was one organisation I founded, along with others, along the way. So because of our role – and there’s not as many of us doing it – we tend to get spread very thin in what we do. So, struggles were very much in line with what a lot of other women of colour have to deal with in the academy.

MA: Thank you. And one of my last questions is about the research of Muslim communities. You mention in one of your interviews that one of the main challenges to studying Muslims is to recruit the participants, but also to build trust in the community. So could you please provide a few tips to those scholars or students who are working on, or willing to work on, studying Muslims in North America: how to overcome these challenges, how to handle and cope with them?

JZ: Right. Definitely, because the Muslim community is a community, as I’ve talked about in my new book, it’s a community under siege. And it’s also a community that a lot of people are trying to research or learn about. So there’s lot of people who just don’t want to be part of certain kinds of research, because they don’t have the discursive authority and control over how their narratives are going to be used. For me, I was someone who was an insider in the community. I was known, at the time I was doing, for example, the Islamic Schools study, I was a parent in an Islamic school, I was on a Parent Association. And I did, as part of my ethnography, participant observations as well as taught in one of the schools. So I was very much embedded. So I had trust, I thought. But there were still a couple of schools that would not give me access. So even, sometimes, when we presume that we have trust, because we’re a member of the community, there are still spaces that will be hesitant to allow you in. Because they don’t necessarily want to air their dirty laundry, they don’t necessarily want someone coming in and . . . . You know, the environment among these schools can be competitive too. So they don’t necessarily want someone coming in and scrutinising what they’re doing, whether you’re a member of the community or not. So, there’s those challenges. There’s always a matter of gaining trust. I work a lot with Muslim youth and so my reputation and standing matters, because of that. So because I have that insider . . . and I have had research assistants, as well, which I found was important in cities that I don’t live in. So that they had the trust and they built the relationships already. They had relationships in the community where they could go and do interviews for me. So that was important. But I also have to say that I feel very strongly that research in Muslim communities is best done by Muslims scholars. And my book that I edited, Islam in the Hinterlands, looking at Muslim cultural politics in Canada, was an edited collection, and all of the contributors were Muslim, except one. And that was a very purposeful decision on my part, to showcase the work of Muslim scholars reflecting on the state of Canadian Muslims in Canada. And while I think there are, you know, people who are doing good research from outside the community, with good intentions, at the same time there can be a sense of academic colonialism. And there can be a sense of then, “Now these people become the experts abut Muslims.” So you know . . . I mean, I’ve been in situations on panels with some people who are non-Muslim who have done research. And we’re on panel, and a question will come about, “What do Muslim women think about X?” And it will be the non-Muslims reaching for the microphone. And I was, like, thinking, “OK. It takes a certain amount of entitlement to think that because of your research, you’ve interviewed a few people or whatever you’ve done, that you have the right to respond to that question when there is a Muslim woman, who is also a scholar, on the panel.” So I think that because of the power relations of knowledge production and the history of orientalism that has shaped and defined how people come to understand Muslims . . . . Not to say that there are people with a good idea of politics who are engaging in research in the community with good intentions and so on. But it’s still matter for us, as a community, to have discursive control and discursive authority, and to begin to privilege those scholars who are up-and-coming in the community, as well as established scholars, to be able to understand the realities that our communities are facing, and be able to speak to that from within. Rather than having research done from outside that is trying to, then, impose meanings on our community, on our identities, on our realities and so on. And so, for that reason, I feel that the research is better taken up by Muslim scholars. I think that, unfortunately, that understanding isn’t as widespread as it is, let’s say, now people are beginning to understand with indigenous communities – that unless you’re indigenous you should not be doing that research. And there’s a lot of indigenous scholars that are there and are positioned well to take that on. So there’s, I think, fewer people who would think it was ok for them to just go into an indigenous community and just start doing research. But you know, recently, even at my own university, I was contacted about supervising a student and they had already started on a study about Muslim women in the local area of my university. And we have a Muslim Studies programme, but none of us were asked about this. This was being done by another department in the university. None of us were consulted, none of us were asked to be part – this was a part of a larger project – to be a part of it. But I was asked to come on and help supervise a student once it was already a fait accompli: the study had begun – they were working on it, you know? And so there is that sense of trying to recruit you to come in to legitimise what they’re doing, but not to consult with you in the beginning to say that, actually, “You have the expertise in this area, this is your community. How can we be of assistance?” So there’s a real lack of humility, sometimes, in how people want to engage in research in communities that are not their own. And it really plays into a kind of academic colonialism that I find really problematic. So I think there are ways that scholars can engage with Muslim communities around certain kinds of questions, but there are other questions that I think are better addressed by scholars from within the community. So if I can give one example, I had a student – a male white Christian student – who came to me, who wanted to look at the Sharia tribunal affair in Ontario, a few years back. And he wanted to interview Muslim women about whether or not if those tribunals were set up, would they go and avail themselves of it? And I said, “Well you know the reason that women would go to one of these tribunals would have to do with divorce or custody, or some kind of marital strife. So what makes you think that as a white, Christian male they want to talk to you about those issues?” Right? So I said, “Think about the boundaries you’re crossing: as a male, trying to do women’s studies; as a Christian, trying to do a study about why Muslim women would specifically want to participate in a faith-based arbitration, on these very personal matters; and really think about is this your project?” And so I had him read a book on decolonising methodology. Because I think what we need to be thinking about is how do we decolonise these practices, right? And then he came up with a study that made sense for the work that he is now doing, and sets him up better in an academic arena, which was to look at it from a policy framework, from the framework of multiculturalism – which was already his area of study. And to expand the study to look at not just Sharia-based or faith based arbitration among Muslims, but also among Jewish communities as well, who actually stood to – when faith-based arbitration was taken out – stood to lose the beth dins that they’d been doing for a decade before. So that became a different kind of way that this particular scholar could engage the topic, without presuming to go in and talk to Muslim women about private things. So had he gone to someone else, they probably would have said, “Yes, sure. Go and do that.” And it wouldn’t have been the best decision for him – even personally, as a scholar – it would not have been the best decision. And certainly, I think, is a very entitled way of approaching research with marginalised communities. And so I think the role of our bodies matters in the knowledge production that we do. And that we need to be aware, specifically among marginalised communities, how these communities have not been in control of the discourses through which their identities and realities are shaped. And that there needs to be a space for them to regain the narrative control. And to be able to, without being considered to be biased, or considered to be . . . . I think all of that idea of positivism is false. This idea that anything is neutral – in terms of research, anyways, right? So we can dispense with that. Then we can, you know, actually do research, and talk about the limitations of that – if there are (any). But we don’t have to presume that there is, in any way, this sort of neutral or unbiased way of doing especially qualitative research. So that’s my opinion on looking at research within the Muslim community: gaining trust, but also looking at whether or not the projects you’re undertaking are . . . you are well-placed to do that. Or whether there are actually people within the community that would be better placed to take that on.

MA: Jasmine Zine, thank you very much for his interview. Thank you for your time, and I wish you all the best with all your research projects. I hope to see you again at the Religious Studies Project Podcast to discuss how academia is changing, and we hope all goes well.

JA: Thank you very much.

Citation Info: Zine, Jasmine and Mariia Alekseevskaia. 2018. “’Preserving Identity and Empowering Women: How Do Canadian Muslim Schools Affect Their Students?”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/preserving-identity-and-empowering-women-how-do-canadian-muslim-schools-affect-their-students/

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