What do you think about the hijab? Secondary special school case study


We are an inner-city school for pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN), aged 11 – 16, with a wide range of learning and communication difficulties, including those associated with Down’s syndrome and autism. We are located in a multicultural area, and students come from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The case study was carried out in a class of 10 students (three girls, seven boys) from African, African-Caribbean, South Asian and white British backgrounds.

Makaton signs, Communicate In Print symbols and photographs were used throughout to assist students to express opinions.

Initial activity

I carried out the Who would you choose to be your friend’ activity, which I felt most likely to be immediately accessible for my pupils. The photo of each child was displayed on the interactive whiteboard. First, as a group, we gave each person a name; the students were thus encouraged to empathise with the children. Each student was then asked to choose one of the children in the photos who would be their friend and, if possible, state why. The results of the exercise are summarised below.

Friend chosen White boy White girl Black boy Black girl Asian


Asian girl
White boy


African boy


1 2 2
Asian boy


1 1
Asian girl


Mixed heritage girl 1


During discussion a number of students seemed to focus on the fact that the Asian girl was wearing a scarf, despite the fact that she was not wearing it as a headscarf. One remarked: She’s wearing a scarf; maybe people don’t like her wearing a scarf. They made no mention of race, although the girl in the scarf is clearly a member of a particular religious group, whilst the other images give no indication of religious belief. The discussion turned to the scarf itself and there were a few comments about it, despite ours being a multifaith school in a diverse neighbourhood. Around 30 % of the pupils are of Muslim background.

I then carried out two further activities, each one week apart: What are they like and Who will have which job?, again including a girl in scarf. I noticed that no children chose the girl in the headscarf (and there had been some negative comments made in the previous activity). Whilst individual pupils assigned a range of jobs to the young Muslim woman wearing a headscarf (including teacher, builder, doctor and farmer), nurse and cook received the most votes, with the class generally seeing her in a caring role.

Whilst all the comments about what they felt she was like were positive (funny, lucky, rich, clever), a comment from an Asian girl pupil was quite alarming: Other children laugh at her and say ‘you’re funny. At this point, I felt it was necessary to explore the unease on the part of some of the students about Muslim women wearing head coverings. We looked at seven images of women wearing headscarves and asked the students which job each woman did. I then revealed the images in context, showing that a very wide range of jobs was represented, and discussed this.

I chose images of seven women in different scarves arranged differently: they covered the head and some also covered the face. Students knew all the women were wearing a veil or a headscarf. Other responses included The woman is sad; She is crying and She is bad. A Muslim girl said: When you go to the mosque you wear a scarf. Other reactions included describing a woman in a burqa as old, or finding it disturbing that her eyes were not visible. A woman in niqab was described by two-thirds of the class as being naughty and strange. Responses to a female athlete wearing hijab and to a woman in a loose scarf were mostly positive. Woman wearing niqab with a narrow eye-hole were described as strange, rich or poor. A laughing girl wearing al-amira (hijab style) laughing in the picture was seen as happy.

Examples of pupils´ comments:

                                         Image number Comment From whom?


woman in niqab (1) I can’t see her face. I can see her eyes. She feels sad. She has lost her friends and family. White boy
woman in niqab (1) She’s going to the mosque. She feels happy. Asian Muslim boy
older woman in hijab (2) She wears glasses. I can see her hair and face. I think she is wearing red shoes. She is going shopping to buy fruit. White boy
woman in burqa (3) No one likes her. They make fun of her. You can see her hands but you can’t see her face or eyes. She feels sad. Black African boy
woman female athlete in hijab (4) She is going to run. She is happy because she is waiting for the next race to begin. Asian Muslim boy
woman female athlete in hijab (4) The man run a race. White boy
woman in niqab (5) What is this called? She feels sad because her children have gone away. Black African boy
woman in niqab (5) It’s a Niqab. She feels happy. She is going to the mosque to pray. Asian Muslim boy
woman wearing loose scarf (6) She is wearing a scarf. You can see her eyes. Mixed heritage girl
young woman wearing hijab and glasses (7) She’s going to the mosque to see her friends. She has glasses and a scarf. Muslim girl


The expressions on the women’s faces, as in the young people/child photos, influenced the choices made: positive smiley pictures got positive comments. However this last exercise revealed a sense of unease from all but the Muslim boys, one of whose female relatives wears a niqab. The Muslim girl felt more positive than other girls about the woman wearing hijab and glasses.

Clearly additional work is needed here. It should include a female Muslim teacher coming in to work and talk with the students. One student was prompted to bring things from home – e.g. a photograph of his growing up in another country – and start talking proudly about his culture and identity. Doing these activities must have sent a signal that talking about and sharing identities was something good and to be welcomed in class.