Equality Means Equality

Equality Means Equality

Friday, 31 May 2019

Dilwar Hussain argues that we need to look at the facts of the debate around teaching Relationships and Sex Education and not let hot-heads dictate the agenda.

 You can’t have missed the protests outside a school in Birmingham over the last few weeks. There have also been attempts to spread this to other areas in the country. Parents are concerned about the way changes to sex and relationships education will affect their children. The protest come in light of laws that were passed in 2017 and come into place in 2020. Guidelines around how the law will apply are still be be written.

Most of the protesters seems to be Muslim, but this debate is not about Islam per se. Nearly 15% of children are withdrawn from current sex education classes. Muslims are only 5% of our society, so the concerns go far beyond Muslim communities.

This is primarily about socially conservative attitudes, but there are other expressions of Islam (and of course other religions). There isn’t a singular view within Islam on sexuality, it’s just as complex as in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or any other religious tradition.

We have four children, two of whom will be affected by this change in law, a 10 year old daughter and a 14 year old son. We have no problem in them attending classes around such subjects and have met teachers, heads and policy makers who are at pains to ensure that parents’ attitudes and concerns are taken into account.

This is not about ‘proselytising’ people to become gay, it is about really important considerations around bullying, discrimination and equality. How do we raise children who can navigate the reality of modern life? And learn to treat each other with respect and dignity. For example, if children see one of their peers struggle with their sexual identity in their late teens, do their show compassion, generosity and kindness or do they react with fear, stigmatisation and harassment?

Parents have every right to have concern for how their children are educated - and the law provides for that. But let’s also balance this with having a shared education for our children that prepares them for the reality of citizenship in this society. 

We need to talk about the facts and the reality of what’s being proposed; calm things down and have a reasoned discussion. Yes, let’s talk to schools and local authorities, raise any concerns, but in a sober manner. These issues are too important to play politics with. Don’t let hot-heads create stories just for their own egos and agendas.

At the heart of the change is that from 2020 there will be a shift from SRE (Sex and Relationship Education) to RSE (Relationship and Sex Education). The move from SRE to RSE is good. At primary level the emphasis is on relationships. The sex element is voluntary (schools can opt in) but then parents can opt out and withdraw their children. At secondary level the relationships and sex elements are compulsory. Socially conservative people would probably appreciate and support the shift from SRE to RSE if they had stopped to see what is actually being proposed. 

For decades now there has been a requirement for sex and relationships education to be ‘age appropriate’. This emphasis continues. So a 10 year old is not being taught in the same way as a 16 year old. I have seen examples of scare mongering on this point circulating around community discussion forums. This is not helpful.

The reality is that children have access to informal (and perhaps often quite misleading) ‘sex education’ via their friends and the Internet - imagery and stories - in an unprecedented way compared to their parents’ youth. It’s a fallacy to imagine that children are not sexually imaginative. All the more reason that educators need to take this issue more seriously, not less.

We can’t just rely on parents to discuss these issues with children in the privacy of their home. Many are reluctant and may not get round to it, or feel they are inadequately equipped to do this. We know this from within the Muslim community and other religious communities. It’s often just left to your peers, or the school.

Historically, Islam actually had a very open attitude towards discussion of relationships and sexual matters, and the Prophet  taught people not to be shy about such things. Much of the hang up here is conservative Asian / Eastern culture. 

We take great pride in living in a diverse society, but that means listening to views that go against your beliefs, and respecting them or at the very least tolerating them. The reality of our diverse society is that people and families are very different. We need to recognise and respect that. Otherwise how can we expect others to respect us? And of course, gay Muslims do exist, as well as transgender Muslims and every other hue of sexual identity. That’s a reality, as much as people may bury their heads in the sand. Equality means equality for all, not some selective notion of ‘we are more equal than others’. 

So let’s prepare our children for their reality and not let prudish attitudes get in the way of their development.

Dilwar Hussain,

New Horizons in British Islam

31 May