WE ARRIVED in Ireland in October 1992. Neither my sister nor I spoke more than a couple of words of English, writes Roja Fazaeli  

My vocabulary consisted of the words: boy, girl, apple, and orange. We had come to Ireland from Iran for my Mum to study for her PhD. That first week, her supervisor was good enough to take us to the school where we were to register. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we got lost en route to the school. But on arrival we were welcomed warmly and registered on the spot. We were even given our green uniforms and some books. The next day we were ready to go to school.

Later in the week, however, my Mum’s supervisor got a call. It was from a school principal wondering where her new pupils were. Somehow, between the supervisor’s benevolence and our language capacity, we had ended up at a different school from the one where we were supposed to have registered.

However, given the warm reception we had already received and our Iranian custom of tarof (a complicated rubric of politeness that fans of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted would immediately recognise) we ended up staying at the first school. A central figure in the decision was Sr Regis. I remember her to have been almost luminous with kindness. She took our hands and said some words, which we did not understand. But somehow she conveyed to us that she would be teaching us English in the hours after school ended for the day. And sure enough, the first full day she came to meet us.

She was bent by age, and having reached her full height some years ago was now growing downwards again. We walk alongside as she shuffled, leading the way to the school locker room, which for some inexplicable reason was the venue for English language classes. The class consisted of me and my sister, Leila, two Spanish exchange students, and two Chinese students, who would sometimes come to classes and who sometimes wouldn’t.

Sr Regis had spent many years teaching in Pakistan, spoke Urdu and knew of The Shahnameh, Firdausi’s epic Persian poem. She used to refer to Leila and me as her two lovely girls. There were days when Sr Regis would ask us to read aloud at length. None of us could read well. I suppose the staccato lullaby of syllables untethered from words, combined with a stuffy blanket of smells thrown about us all by the locker room, was soporific. There were many times before we had reached the end of our assignment when we would look up to see Sr Ridges having a little nap. Leila and I would then look at each other. We so wanted to laugh! But our respect for Sr Regis was stronger and we ploughed ahead through the text as she slept.

This was a small miracle for two girls prone to laugh at almost anything almost anywhere. In fact, we grew so fond of Sr Regis that even after leaving the school we went to visit her at the convent in Monsktown.

Despite the warmth of our welcome at the school, our identities were also challenged from the first day. Leila and I, who wore headscarves at the time, were asked to remove them at the school gate. Students wanted to know about whether we lived in tents in the desert or rode camels. And perhaps because our arrival followed in the wake of the singularly terrible film, Not Without My Daughter, it seemed to be our Iranian more than our Muslim identities that were queried with supercilious caution.

My own daughter will start Montessori school in the autumn and so I have been drawn to thinking about early spaces of learning this summer — how they work in Ireland, how they work in Iran, how they work all around the world. I look back, remembering how easy it was to enter the school system in Ireland and avail of our right to education.

A right to education can be curtailed by many things. War or displacement, economic, racial, ethnic and gender inequalities may all be factors, either singularly or in combination. One of the earliest concerns of women’s movements in Muslim majority countries was with the securing right to education for girls and with closing the gender gap across the public sector. Gender equality remains a challenge in these countries, even as it does in sections of Europe.

In some, though not all, Muslim majority countries, the right to education is limited by gender inequalities, which intrude on the ability of girls to access and benefit from education.

A prominent and iconic voice of challenge to this kind of paradigm, wrongly rooted in both bad theology and cultural misogyny, has been that of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai. While certainly exceptional and exemplary, I would argue that Malala should not be seen as atypical. Gender gaps are not natural things, but constructed ones. There are many Malalas out there, straining against systems that seek to keep them away from the school gate. Perhaps Sr Regis, who had spent so much time in Malala’s native Pakistan, knew something of this. She certainly always treated us with respect and love and I love her for having imparted linguistic knowledge to us in between naps.

Twenty years ago two Muslim girls looking for a school to attend in Dublin might have been seen as exceptional or atypical. That is less the case today. Though varying in structure and degree, gender and religious inequality is a live issue the world over. And while wearing my academic hat, I concentrate on researching female religious authority in the Muslim world, as a parent I find I’m also concerned about religious authority, relative to education at home here in Ireland.

For my own part, due in no small way to my formative years in Iran, I am convinced that the intertwining of religion and state is a thing best avoided.

I am likewise convinced that the outsourcing of a state’s duty of education to a system of religious patronage undermines both the right to education as well as the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Some may say that comparing the way the school patronage system works in Ireland to that of educational systems in other countries is like comparing apples and oranges. That may be true. But with a mother who has a PhD in horticulture, I can also tell you that there is a lot of fruit in the world, much of which I have yet to learn the name of.

* Dr Roja Fazaeli is a lecturer in Islamic civilisations in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Trinity College Dublin


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