14 September 2013

The importance of respecting a person’s dignity is also tied to respecting their bodily integrity.

ONE of the things that we try to impart to our children is the value of human dignity, where we try and teach them to respect others, never to shame others in public and to always conduct ourselves with decorum.
Our pity is often cast on those whose lives have fallen apart and who have to bear the indignities that society can wreak on the indigent and the ill.
We know that the importance of respecting a person’s dignity is also tied to respecting their bodily integrity. Hence our concern – some would say, obsession – with the way people, especially women, are dressed.
The ostensible reason is that it protects a person’s physical integrity.
A dignified person is therefore a whole person, respected and respectful.
Imagine therefore my horror and shock at a story of an ustazah in a school who, disbelieving her female students who said they could not pray because they had their period, decided to check their underwear to see if they were telling the truth.
It must be a special kind of sick sadist that thinks that checking another person’s underwear is a viable way of carrying out their duties. It is a blatant abuse of power over those who are unable to refuse the command.
Mothers rarely ask to look at their young daughters’ underwear except with very good reason, such as if they suspect they are ill. Why then does a teacher who otherwise has no business to touch the bodies of our children feel she can do this with impunity?
Imagine the effect it will have on the students. It is bad enough not to be believed but to be violated in this way must surely have an effect on their self-esteem.
Do we not care if we bring up children with low self-esteem or is that the idea, to create a whole generation of subservient girls?
More insultingly, it is done in the name of religion.
It just points to the sheer ludicrousness of public ritual as an indicator of piety.
I don’t know what KPI the ustazah had that she had to ensure that every single girl under her charge prayed every day.
Yet for all the praying, which presumably she does too, she still could not trust her own charges. If they say they cannot pray that day, then really she should just trust them and leave it in the hands of the Almighty.
Apparently this sort of thing is not uncommon in our schools and even in Muslim schools elsewhere. A friend told of how when she was in school, girls had to indicate on a chart when they had their period. If their period lasted more than 15 days, then this was cause for speculation that they were lying and therefore liable to be subject to punishment for not praying.
I have to wonder what punishment is reserved for boys who try to excuse themselves from prayers since there are no similar indicators for them. Should girls be punished merely because of biology?
The reaction of most of my friends who heard this story is that the parents of the girls should sue the teacher and the school.
Schools are after all meant to be spaces that are safe for our children.
Safety does not just mean physical safety but safety from the sort of mental abuse that this sort of physical “inspection” causes.
But the chances are that the parents won’t. Firstly, they are likely to feel embarrassed about the whole thing and secondly, who are they to dispute a teacher, and a religious teacher at that, who has power over their child for most of the day? They are also likely to be shamed for not keeping tabs on their daughters’ prayer schedules themselves.
In other words, such abusive teachers are likely to carry on this behaviour knowing that nothing much will happen to them.
What do we teach our children when we behave like this? We teach them that power over someone weaker is everything, that the powerful can do anything, especially humiliate a powerless person.
We teach our children that their bodies are not theirs, and yet at the same time we scold and punish them if they allow the “wrong” people to touch them. Is an ustazah, even if she is of the same sex, the right person? Some people will say she was only looking and not touching. That’s splitting hairs really.
It is things like these that make parents lose trust in our schools and our teachers. Schools are where our children should be able to grow as human beings, to fulfil their potential to be contributing members of society.
Instead, we are turning them into humiliated people who may well turn into future abusers themselves.