Before I begin this piece, I want to give a disclaimer and declare my own positionality. As a non-white academic, I am always expected to explore my own biases when I write or research on matters specific to my own faith, background or any aspect of my identity. I have not found the same level of responsibility placed on white academics to explore their own positionality. I will return to this theme when I look to unpack what it means to be ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ and how this discourse of objectivity or neutrality as synonymous with whiteness has very real and very practical consequences in the Trojan Horse Affair.
However, before I get to that, I do wish to declare my own personal connections to the Trojan Horse saga. Not only am I a Muslim from Birmingham, but I grew up in Alum Rock, one of the key areas of Birmingham embroiled in this affair. Moreover, the secondary school that I attended was Park View School. I attended Park View from 1980 to 1985. When I started my secondary education, the school was not called Park View. It was called Naseby School. In my third year it joined with Ward End Park School and was renamed Park View.
For a while many of us students were moved to the Ward End Park buildings and that is where I completed my secondary education. Mr Packer joined the school when it became Park View and he was my computer studies teacher in my 3rd year, I think. I recall I was the only girl in that class. Eventually the Ward End Park buildings would be shut down and the entire school once again based at the campus on Naseby Road. I had left Park View School by the time this final transition of the buildings took place.
I attended Park View school as a minority pupil and this was the case throughout my education there as the majority of students (and nearly all teachers) were white. I recall perhaps around 4 or 5 Muslim students in each class that were from a similar background to mine (Pakistani and Mirpuri/Pahari speaking). There were even fewer Black students. At the time even Alum Rock Road consisted mainly of white owned businesses. I would walk through Alum Rock Road on my way to school and pass by butchers, Woolworths, Timpsons, a sewing machine shop, fish and chips shops to name a few, all of which were white owned. My parents owned one of the very few Pakistani restaurants on Alum Rock Road. When I left Park View, the demographics of that area changed, and the ethnic and religious make up of the school also changed. Indeed, by the time our family moved out of Alum Rock it was turning into the bustling, Muslim majority area that is now familiar.
Though I would not have been able to articulate it at the time, I was well aware of my minority status at school. I was fully conscious of being different to the majority of students and also how much of myself I left outside of the classroom. I tried very hard to ensure my differences remained largely invisible as I had always thought the best way for me to fit in and progress was to ‘assimilate’; to pretend that the cultural norms of the majority applied in exactly the same way for me. I thought the differences in my life outside of school were unimportant and an inconvenience for me to mention.
For example, I recall a P.E lesson where we were expected to go running for almost the entire lesson. This was during Ramadan in the summer months and I was fasting. When I mentioned this to the teacher she had no idea what I was referring to and seemed to have little sympathy. I felt embarrassed and quickly just ended the conversation and then proceeded to participate in the lesson as though there was nothing different about me.
As an academic, I can now better understand that the invisibility that is welcomed by minimising any differences, is also the source of intense alienation; that classrooms are not neutral or objective spaces and presenting them as such masks the perspectives, values, norms and cultural behaviours of the empowered (Crenshaw 1998).
It is this notion of objectivity and neutrality that I now wish to explore in the context of two different but, in my view, overlapping themes that are addressed in the Trojan Horse Affair podcast. First, is in relation to episode 5 and the evidence of the whistleblowers. I want to unpack what this episode tells us about the way in which whiteness and white culture is made synonymous with neutrality and how difficult it becomes to challenge Islamophobic tropes when they have been embedded into the psyche and culture of our society. Our society is only at the earliest stages of unpacking its own colonial and racist legacies. The particular tropes that I am interested in exploring are the perceptions of Muslim women as illustrated by the interviews with the whistle blowers.
The second, is in the conversations between Hamza Syed and Brian Reed as they explore and address their own personal relationships to the investigations that they are conducting. Hamza’s rawness and at times emotional responses can be contrasted with Brian’s more detached approach, highlighting what I said at the beginning of this piece; that people of colour are more readily expected and indeed invested in exploring their own positionality.
I will draw these two themes together in arguing that exploring positionality is a key method of challenging biases that one may hold. Positionality, in particular allows for challenging claims to an objective, singular, universal and natural description of the world, and to question issues related to hierarchy and power (Moghli & Kadiwal 2021). Euro-centrism and whiteness has generally evaded addressing positionality on the assumption that white culture itself represents neutrality and natural norms of behaviour.
A failure to address positionality both at an individual level and at a systemic level leads to perpetuating racist, colonial and, in the case of the Trojan Horse Affair, Islamophobic tropes. Moreover, positionality challenges the paternalistic ‘saving’ rhetoric (Moghli & Kadiwal 2021). Eurocentrism can, however, be so deeply embedded that there remains an unwillingness to reconsider the supposed neutral and objective assumptions when confronted with evidence that directly contradicts those tropes. Episode 5 captures the practical application of this theory.
In Part 5, A Study in Scarlett, we meet my former teacher, Steve Packer, and his wife, Sue Packer, the initial ‘whistleblowers’. The meeting between Hamza and Brian and the Packers begins pleasantly enough as they set out their version of events and complaints that they have made. One theme in particular emerges regarding the treatment of Muslim female students and staff by Muslim male members of staff at Park View. Sue Packer expresses her view that ‘there was a lot of unfairness going on. Equality had gone out the door’. A number of generalised claims are made about the treatment of girls and then some specific examples are provided as evidence of the removal of female agency. She further emphasises that she felt ‘the girls needed to be strong. They needed to be feel in control’ [sic].
Sue Packer recounts a particular incident when a Muslim female staff volunteer was berated by a male Muslim staff member on their return from a school outing. In Sue Packer’s view this incident was emblematic of the male/female interactions that were taking place, demonstrating a misogynistic culture which had developed in the school and which was rooted in the Islamically sanctioned religious views of the men. She regarded this incident with such seriousness that it ultimately resulted in her making a formal complaint and her subsequent resignation.
As stated in the Podcast this incident is relied upon in the evidence given by the Packers in the disciplinary hearings and the various investigations that took place. The Packers are convinced that not a single Muslim woman came forward to support their version of events because ‘the [Muslim] women aren’t very good at speaking out…. perhaps aren’t confident to speak out in that community, especially female Muslims. I think there’s just sort of fear about speaking out’
Razak (2004) poses the question of how to address patriarchy within Muslim communities without descending into the well-worn narrative of brown Muslim women needing to be saved from inherently dangerous brown Muslim men, by civilised white Europeans (see also, Spivak 1988). Unfortunately, this framing seems to be exactly what we see on display in this episode and indeed running throughout the investigations. Essentialised and reductive notions of Muslim women are presented thereby justifying them being ‘saved’, reinforcing the notions of superiority of the saviours (Abu-Lughod 2002).
It is particularly troubling that, for the whistleblowers, having worked with Muslims students and staff over a very lengthy period of time and, indeed, in the case of Steve Packer, actively participated in some of the changes that were made to support the environment for Muslim students, the perceptions of Muslim women remained resolutely one dimensional. They steadfastly remained convinced that female Muslim staff and students were unable to speak for themselves and needed them to be speak on their behalf.
The Podcast highlights that not a single Muslim female from the school came to testify in support of the claims made by them and yet when challenged on this the only conclusion that they can draw is that the women are unable to speak for themselves; reinforcing the assumptions that they already hold and reinforcing their own virtuous goal of speaking on behalf of muted Muslim women. There appears to be little re-assessment or reflection having taken place over the years since the Trojan Horse Affair, as to any other possible reasons why their allegations received so little support from the women whose interests they claimed to represent.
This critique is not limited to the whistleblowers. Ann Connor, an inspector from the Education Funding Agency Report on Park View Educational Trust and Education Advisor to the Clarke Report had spoke to female Muslim students at Park View School as part of the former review. In giving her evidence she referred to her notebook in which she had noted the fierce and challenging questions that she had been met with by the students. Yet this did not feature in her assessment and nor did this allay her concerns. The framing of Muslim women is so deeply embedded that even when it is forcefully challenged it does not appear to make any impact on those tropes unless Muslim women surrender their faith.
I would argue these are all examples of failing to address one’s own positionality. When one assumes they hold the objective, neutral position there is no need to reflect on one’s own location in the geopolitics of knowledge production. Nor is it necessary to consider one’s own complicity in preconceived notions that you hold, nor to attempt to counter those notions, nor to consider how your own views of the world may be shaped by Eurocentric thought, knowledge and power structures (Moghli & Kadiwal 2021). One can remain safe in the assumed comfort that you hold the ‘normal’, ‘neutral’, ‘secular’ position that is untainted by any historical, colonial, political or social context.
Abu-Lughod argues a more productive approach for those seeking to address inequalities is to ask questions as to how we may contribute to a more just society and to think of egalitarian forms of alliances, coalitions and solidarity rather than salvation (Abu-Lughod). This requires giving space to Muslim women, listening to them, recognising they do not all speak in one voice, recognising the significance of faith and the different ways in which faith manifests itself for the women, and acknowledging all the complexities and nuances that this brings.
In my view everyone engages with the world around them through their own particular lens and through their own complex locations. The danger arises when you fail to or refuse to acknowledge that whiteness and Eurocentrism is not a neutral space.
Hamza Syed’s exploration of his own positionality
Throughout the Podcast we see Hamza grappling with his own positionality and the impact this has on his investigations. The very first episode begins with Hamza locating himself within the geographical, political and social context of the letter. Hamza makes it clear from the outset that the consequences of the letter were of significance to him personally as a British Muslim from Birmingham. Indeed, in Part 6, a member of the Humanist Society almost nonchalantly asks about the Trojan Horse Affair: ‘what impact did it have?’ Hamza’s impassioned reaction demonstrates the deep, lasting and very significant effect that has been felt by Muslims including Hamza himself and Hamza does not hide his emotions or his anger at the casual manner in which the question is asked.
At various stages of the investigations we see much deeper reflections from Hamza in which he not only reflects on his own positionality but we see him engaging in reassessments of his own identity and his role as journalist. Again, in Part 6, reference is made to an incident in which Hamza sets out his own truthful personal views in a letter to potential witnesses in order to allay concerns and to reassure them as to his takes on the entire affair.
What I find interesting is that Hamza’s openness in revealing the positions that he takes is seen as so problematic. I understand a need to have an open mind when investigating but Hamza’s disclosure of his positionality simply makes clear the lens through which he is approaching the investigation? It recognises that he is part and parcel of the community that has been impacted, it allows for the reflections and analysis that take place, it allows for the different perspectives that he brings to the claims. I would go so far as to say that had Hamza not been a Muslim from Birmingham this entire investigation and podcast would never have been created. It even leads to reflections on the part of Brian of his role as a journalist and the supposed objective place from which he approached journalism.
It is a well-established in decolonial and post-colonial theory that exploring positionality is one of the methods through we can challenge claims to objectivity and neutrality. But exploring positionality is not just for those of us from ethnic or Black minorities. We are already fully invested in undertaking that work. Where we need to move to is for ‘whiteness’ and euro-centric to being unpacking its political, social, historical and geographical contexts in values and norms that it espouses.
For me personally, so much of Hamza’s reflections resonated with my approach to my academic work and the Podcast has given me renewed hope that Muslims and people of colour more generally need to be active in every public space and to reclaim what is seen as objective, neutral or normal.
Abu-Lughod, Lila (2002) ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativisms and Its Others’ American Anthropoligist, 104(3) 783-790.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé ‘Towards a Race-Conscious Pedagogy in Legal Education’, National Black Law Journal 11(1)
Moghli, Mai Abu and Laila Kadiwal, (2021) ‘Decolonising the curriculum beyond the surge: Conceptualisation, positionality and conduct’, London Review of Education 19(1) https://doi.org/10.14324/LRE.19.1.23
Razack, Sherene H. (2004) ‘Imperilled Muslim Women, Dangerous Muslim Men and Civilised Europeans: Legal and Social Responses to Forced Marriages’, (2004) Feminist Legal Studies 12: 129-174. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:FEST.0000043305.66172.92
Rehana Parveen is a former solicitor and a former senior tutor at The University of Law. Rehana joined the University of Birmingham Law School in 2012 and completed her doctoral thesis exploring Muslim women’s experiences of using religious tribunals (shari’a councils) and comparing this to their experiences of using state law. Rehana currently works as a Senior Lecturer in the Law School, teaching on a wide range of undergraduate and post graduate modules. Rehana is particularly interested in the developing relationship between English Family Law and Islamic Family Law and how women navigate these interacting frameworks. More recently Rehana has been exploring how legal concepts and structures may be decolonised to place them within their social, historical, political and postcolonial context.
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TO CITE THIS ARTICLE:
Parveen, Rehana 2022. ‘The illusion of objectivity, as revealed by the Trojan Horse Affair podcast’ Discover Society: New Series 2 (2): https://doi.org/10.51428/dsoc.2022.02.0006