Fair Game: Sport, Scandal and Islamic Schools in the Media

Aicha Marhfour is a writer based in Melbourne and was a 2015 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk fellow. During her fellowship, Aicha worked on The Wolf & The Hedgehog: A Muslim Girl's Book of Revelations, a memoir examining the challenges facing young Muslim girls in the Western world. In this extract, Aicha investigates the controversy around claims that female students at a Melbourne Islamic school were prevented from taking part in competitive sport.

Frame from Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

In Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, set in post-revolutionary Iran, the film’s protagonist is late for a bus when two Revolutionary Guards stop her to ask why she is running. ‘When you run, your behind makes movements that are ... how do you say ... obscene!’ one explains. Our protagonist’s cartoon eyes contort with anger. ‘Well then don’t look at my ass!’ she replies, startling them with a quick-witted response. A behind, after all, is only obscene to a lecher; other people have public transport to catch.

Recently, I was reminded of this scene. At Al-Taqwa College, a Melbourne-based independent Islamic school, female students had allegedly been prevented from taking part in cross-country running – and the school’s principal, Omar Hallak, was facing public castigation.

‘The principal holds beliefs that if females run excessively, they may lose their virginity,’ read a letter from a former Al-Taqwa teacher, forwarded to state and federal education ministers in April 2015. ‘The principal believes that there is scientific evidence to indicate that if girls injure themselves, such as break their leg while playing soccer, it could render them infertile.’

As a former pupil of another Islamic institution, I wasn't sure how to react. The accusations levied at Hallak were ridiculous – but they weren’t too crazy to be believed.

As appalled as I am by the allegations out of Al-Taqwa College, I probably would have appreciated the linkage between running and virginity – anything to get me out of physical education class.

At my school, students had been expelled for kissing on school grounds. Attitudes to sexual education, relationships and marriage were conservative. Teachers were chemical detectives, quick to sniff out pheromones. Dating, when you could get away with it, mainly consisted of walking around, so we read the Dolly Doctor’s sealed section to supplement our magpied knowledge of romance, sex and biology.

I don't remember the connection between running and virginity ever being made during my time. But there were whispers about the effects of horse-riding and cycling.

As appalled as I am now by the allegations out of Al-Taqwa College, I probably would have appreciated anything that got me out of physical education class at the time. At my Islamic high school, girls were indoctrinated in the good of competitive team sports, which we played in segregated gaggles. The more enthusiastic would carry on at lunchtime, but my wimpish body meant that I was always an onlooker trying to avoid a football to the face.

It was universally recognised that free-flowing blood and sport didn’t mix. I would be ‘bleeding’ every week, or as often as I could pull it off, clutching my gut in mock-pain and sitting on the sidelines. My ovaries were as active as my guts.

Experiences that were normal to us sound positively antediluvian to outside ears; after all, it’s only now that I shiver at the idea of teachers tracking my period.

We were less fortunate when it came to out-foxing the teachers in what we called the ‘Rag Room’, a classroom where girls on their period could sit out the compulsory daily prayers. Our attendance was ticked off on a special roll, and girls using the room for more than a week each month had to explain their irregular periods. In the Rag Room, we did homework, read books and chatted. The Rag Room gives a sense of what it was like for girls at Islamic schools in the '00s. Experiences that were normal to us sound positively antediluvian to outside ears. It’s only now that I shiver at the idea of teachers tracking my period.

Al-Taqwa College students playing volleyball. Image courtesy Al-Taqwa College.

Half a decade after graduating from the petri-dish environment of an Islamic school, I finally feel qualified to look at the non-events out of Al-Taqwa with something approaching a critical eye.

Lamisse Hamouda, who wrote about her experiences at Al-Taqwa, painted a picture that was grim and familiar to me. ‘My time at Al-Taqwa College was a rollercoaster of frustrations, battles and internalising resentment,’ she wrote. ‘Participation in sport was never outright forbidden, it was just ignored wherever possible. Lip service was paid to exercise and sports, and there was an attempt to designate a "female-only" basketball court. The schoolyard was strictly gender-segregated, with female students relegated to spaces of concrete and picnic tables.’

Hamouda repeated the statement attributed to Hallak, connecting sports participation with virginity and infertility. Despite the school’s denials, it is an accusation that has stuck. But in some circles, the wrongdoing originates elsewhere. The tenor of the story shifts, depending on whom you talk to. Perhaps Hamouda is a traitor, motivated by petty dislike. Perhaps Omar Hallak is a hero, and a pillar of a community maligned by dark forces.

A Facebook group was set up in support of Al-Taqwa and Omar Hallak, with a typically dramatic name: ‘Al-Taqwa College battles Against Resentment’. It has more than 1000 members. The group description reads: ‘Every school has ups and downs! Al-Taqwa college did aswell [sic], yet degrading the school and principle [sic] is no way to handle the situation! Mr Hallak, has always supported gender equality, and encouraged female students to establish a strong education!!’ Members are reminded to not give any statements to the media, and clamour, within the bounds of the group itself, to prove just how much sport they played. Photographs and scans of school magazine entries, sports awards and trips crowd the page, along with personal reminiscences and assurances about Omar Hallak’s teaching abilities. Fingers are pointed everywhere – at the media, Lamisse Hamouda, bigots and Islamophobes.

[The Al-Taqwa College supporters group] would be cold comfort to the Year 9 girls at Al-Taqwa, who wrote a letter to their principal, in touchingly crooked handwriting, when they were unable to participate in a cross-country running event.

This group would be cold comfort to the Year 9 girls at Al-Taqwa, who wrote a letter to their principal, in touchingly crooked handwriting, when they were unable to participate in a cross-country running event. At the same time, I’ve been personally told that the virginity allegations were a parting shot from a teacher who was fired.

The nature of the ‘resentment’ against Al-Taqwa is unclear, but in such environments, it can remain unspoken. As Islamic school students and children in the last decade, we are all bonded by shared experiences from 9/11 onwards. Many have heard the slurs and witnessed the hatred. All of us have experienced something on a sliding scale, from alienation to violence. The rise of Reclaim Australia has brought a wave of violent Aussie pride to the streets. But as a defence, claims of ‘Islamophobia’ can be used with the ease of a straw-man.

The conspiracy around Al-Taqwa is puzzling, and I didn’t expect answers. But in the end, it is a zero-sum game. There are no winners in this squalid story. Our collective reputation, as Muslims, has already been damaged so much over the years.  Al-Taqwa’s scandal of sorts is shocking but no surprise. To Joe Islamophobe, yawning over his morning cornflakes, it probably even feels a little predictable. Muslims and their backwards views on women are old hat.

When Hamouda posted her Age article publicly to her personal Facebook page, there was a flurry of responses. Most were congratulatory messages, but a few disgruntled readers made their voices heard. Their comments all shared an injured, defensive tone.

‘I understand you had good intentions Sr. Lamisse,’ one simpered, ‘... but what the media is doing is just disgusting; this is just part of the Islamophobic tide in the Australian media … I heard this story about girls losing their virginity from sport 8 years ago when I was working there!! I didn't hear him personally say it; but maybe he did ... I don't know...’

‘Lamisse you raised some really good points,’ began another, ‘but this needed to be an internal discussion. No matter how much you explained that Islam does not condone this kind of treatment, the readers will read and extract from the article to feed their own bigoted opinions.’

Internal discussion is proposed as a panacea, smoothing over all the cracks and fissures that have emerged since the allegations against Al-Taqwa first came to light. ‘We should sort this out between ourselves, as Muslims do,’ Hamouda’s commenters seem to say, ‘over a cup of something warm and non-alcoholic, with a biscuit.’ It’s a seductive idea, but would descend into chaos before the Turkish coffee is even poured. Where would the internal discussion be held? Who would be invited along?

Discussing the allegations out of Al-Taqwa amongst ourselves, with a view to resolving the dispute, seems mostly like a pipe-dream. The logistics alone would necessitate hours of head-scratching.

Any internal discussion would at best be a palliative measure, and beset by drama. There is no clearly defined set of checks and balances to hold Omar Hallak accountable within the community, and no outside body to enforce this. Melbourne’s Islamic ‘community’ at large has fealty to no one organisation or figure who could, like a qadi in the old days, arbitrate matters with a Quran in hand. Internal discussion is a mealy-mouthed refuge for those embarrassed by association. As a stand-alone goal, it is noble but unthinkable.

Discussing the allegations out of Al-Taqwa amongst ourselves, with a view to resolving the dispute, seems mostly like a pipe-dream. The logistics alone would necessitate hours of head-scratching. The glue holding the ‘Al-Taqwa College battles Against Resentment’ Facebook group together is a three-pronged belief: in Omar Hallak’s innocence, the media’s perfidy as an Islamophobic hot-house, and a dogged refusal to discuss the more embarrassing aspects of the scandal. Even typing the word ‘scandal’ is enough to give me pause – I can see the disapproving moue of mouths objecting to its connotations. Scandal is such a loaded word, someone would say, reaching for a holy spritz of Zam Zam water. Whatever we do, as Muslims, we don’t do that. We’re targets of cartoonish stereotypes and misnomers applied to us by others.

The crimes committed in our name are overwhelmingly huge acts, which we condemn. We have resentment to battle; we exist in a hostile society with our cultures, traditions and hymens intact. Scandals are small and tawdry, the province of philandering clergy caught with a hand in the till. We are victims.

It is easy to invoke ‘internal discussion’ like a hamsa, warding off the curses of scrutiny and accountability. But what is more difficult is to untie the knots which bind us together in silent complicity. To admit to a mistake that cannot be palmed off with shadowy conspiracy theories.

While the investigation ended with no fanfare, and the media’s attention waned, there is no indication that anything has changed. Omar Hallak’s supporters have remained dogged, posting sports carnival photos and personal testimonials. Internal discussion and the Islamophobic media continue to be trotted out as talismans.

Al-Taqwa College’s statement is a flat-out denial, and the investigation has cleared the school’s name. But conspiracy can sustain itself indefinitely. It’s another day, another battle against resentment.

Portrait of Aicha Marhfour

Aicha Marhfour is a freelance writer in Melbourne. She has appeared in the Age, Junkee, New Matilda and Daily Life, among others. Now blogging for The Monthly, her interests include feminism, diversity and One Direction. She is writing personal essays and memoir. Her tweets are @aichamarhfour.

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