Culture, Education, Equality

No Outsiders protests: Paving path for more Islamophobia

While some of the UK population watch in despair that yet another attempt to bring the country back from the brink of disaster is failed by the incompetent bunch of tossers aka MPs, something else happened in a school in Birmingham which probably won’t create enough uproar, at least not for the right reason. I can’t help but link anything is happening in Britain these days to Brexit, and this is no different. However, at the end of this essay, it will be clear why the links are relevant and why Brexit needs to be stopped before it breaks the society apart.

Parkfield primary school in Saltley, Birmingham adopted the No Outsiders, an LGBTQ awareness course. This has caused an uproar amongst the families of the pupils and a few weeks back, the parents threatened to withdraw children from the school unless the course is suspended. After a few days of standoff, the authorities gave in to the protests of the parents and dropped the programme. A few weeks later, today on 14th of March, following consultation amongst the Academy trust, parents and the DfE, it was decided that the course will be suspended until a resolution is achieved between the school and the parents.

When this issue first came in the news, about the protests, we had a debate at home and thought perhaps the four-year-olds don’t really need to understand about lifestyle choices, but it could be introduced on a slightly later stage, say about seven. But then, thinking about the children of non-binary parents who would spend a long time doubting their identity during their formative years, my opinion swayed towards including the LGBTQ awareness right from the beginning of the school age. Also, not knowing how to view someone’s parents who do not fall into a mummy-daddy stereotype, it would perhaps become a reason for the children to distrust/alienate. Nevertheless, we did the rational thing of going through the pros and cons of teaching about relationships from the reception years and acknowledge that there may be more room for discussion on the age of introduction. However, if the school introduced the course from reception as mandatory, although some of us may be slightly uncomfortable about it, we would not oppose the plan vehemently.

So what would you say about the parents who boycotted the school, took their children out of the school and made them protest at the school gates along with the parents demanding the resignation of the headteacher who proposed to introduce the No Outsiders programme? “What a bunch of w@nkers”, right? What would you think of the parents if I add the detail that 98% of the children who attend the school were Muslims and the reason behind the parents’ protest was that the teachings were against their religious beliefs? I’d still think “What a bunch of w@nkers”. I don’t think it needn’t be any more complicated than that.

But is that the reality? The reaction on the social media with supposedly moderate reader base suggests otherwise. The majority of the reactions are in the same vein, criticising the religious indoctrination of Islam and how a school’s curriculum is now influenced by the religious naysayers. Personally, I have been involved in a number of arguments opposing the decision and unsurprisingly enough, the likes and loves were generally from non-Muslim readers, whereas the criticism to my argument and commendations to the school board’s decision were mainly from the Muslims.

So what was my argument? That education knows no religion in particular. The state of UK has no official religion, even though every Tory prime minister likes to mention during Easter and Christmas that Britain is a Christian country. The essential values of being British are individual liberty and respect & tolerance. So whilst the schools need to respect the beliefs of different faiths, it cannot be hijacked by the one single faith. One may argue, what about over-indulgence regarding Christmas and Easter? And I’d fully agree with them, but let’s not meddle into that topic. So, No Outsiders is an essential programme, apt with the increasing bigotry in society. I went in further suggesting that if the religion was of such paramount importance to the parents, why do they send children to a state school with no recognised affiliation to one religion?

Probably my argument seems a bit Islamophobic. However, it is quite the contrary. Allow me to explain. But before doing so, let me present some other findings that I thought would support my perspective. The epicentre of the attention, headteacher Andy Moffat is Gay, he’s been awarded an MBE for the No Outsiders programme that broadened children’s tolerance, and he changed a few schools due to arguments he had regarding his teachings. He was also nominated for an award given to World’s best teacher. In a world where teaching qualities are in decline, Andy Moffat is an exception. The point I’d like to highlight about the details I provided is that he changed a few schools before arriving at Parkfield. The reason? You probably guessed it right, that he told the children that he’s gay, that being gay is normal, that he tried to introduced No Outsiders in those schools. He was forced to resign or abandon the programme whilst being in the previous schools because parents have complained. So you see, everywhere he’s been in the past, he angered the communities with views for schools that broke the glass ceiling. This must be a déjà vu moment for him, being confronted by a group of unhappy Muslim parents that his teachings were against the religion?

Déjà vu? Yes of course. But it’ll be surprising to find out that schools he resigned from before Parkfield were due to parents’ complaints who were Christians as well as Muslims. It was contrary to the Christian values. So, does that imply, that perhaps there was something wrong in Mr Moffat’s teachings if he irked the feelings of parents of two religions? No, absolutely not! And I would brand the parents who opposed to the programme in the other school the same what I thought about Parkfield protesters — “What a bunch of w@nkers”. If the same issue was flagged by 100 other religions, the feeling won’t change. One may argue that it’s easy to pass my judgement being an atheist. There are two points to add. First, atheists don’t have religious sentiments. So something cannot hurt a feeling that you don’t have. Secondly, there may be atheists who are/were opposed to the course. I’m my view, if they are so opposed to it that they had to demand an apology from the teacher, they are probably homophobic. They are a bunch of w@nkers as well, in my view. Now, disagreement on the age of introduction is slightly different, where parents admit that children should be taught about homosexuality in schools but reception may not be the year. This argument doesn’t apply for Parkfield because even parents of students in Year 6 took part in the protests. I do not know the details about the parents from the other school, but citing religious feelings meant that if the children aren’t ready at 4, they won’t be ready at 11.

Education for children should be based on no bias. Schools should be at least one place where the children can learn how not to be bigots. We have the outside world to teach that anyway. They should learn what is right and not discriminate based on race, religion, sexuality. They need to learn to be tolerant. No Outsiders is a course created to broaden tolerance and it’s myopic not to realise how essential it is to be living in a multicultural society. There is already a lot of bigotry related to religious education, with parents unhappy about their children knowing about other religions because they are “unholy” or “violent”. The trust shouldn’t have bowed down under the pressure from the parents. What would be next one to go? Sex education? Teaching about contraception? What about science or anything that questions the existence of God? However, those who are raring to have a go at the Muslim community for the conservative sentiments, please note that before the Equalities act repealed it in 2010, the Local Government Act, passed in 1988 by Saint Maggie herself, prohibited the local authorities to promote homosexuality.

These days, when we are becoming increasingly click happy, it’s easy to pass judgement without understanding both sides of the story. The reports in the newspaper cited a number of protesting parents who said that the course is against the religious belief of the community. Yet, it needs to be understood that No Outsiders is not a new curriculum introduced this year. In Parkfield primary, the programme has been running for at least two years. There was an article published in 2016, how a teacher is transforming communities with his No Outsiders curriculum. The article also cited the reaction of the parents. Whilst some were against the course, some expressed the importance of the course, do the children are not presented a one-sided version of what is acceptable and what isn’t. So, suddenly after two years or more of running the programme successfully in the school, why did the parents realise that it’s wrong and they started demanding the resignation of Mr Moffat? Was it a sudden awakening in the entire community or are there in fact, external influences? Was it the retaliation for the foiled Trojan Horse campaign? The other fact to be borne in mind is that from the previous school, he was forced to resign because it was untenable to continue teaching whereas in Parkfield, although the course was axed until further resolution, Mr Moffat is presently continuing as head teacher. So apart from the meeting with parents, it’s not clear how much pressure was put on him in the previous school, whether it was only from parents or from staff and trust as well. Or is it simply because the Parkfield trust doesn’t want him to resign for personal interests, of keeping an MBE teacher to maintain their Outstanding Ofsted rating?

Let’s now look at the aspect what I mentioned before — the Brexit connection. This news of the LGBTQ course being dropped from Parkfield Primary will obviously be seen in different lights by people from the different political spectrum. Whilst the faction in the left are busy lambasting the trust and the communities for dropping the course for an ideological reason, the ones on the right — Tories, far-rights, gammons, zombies — this news is a golden opportunity for them to peddle their politics of fear. Soon this will be one of the chapters in the next Tommy Robinson book, an agenda on the Britain First campaign to protest outside a school with largely minority students, a reason for Nigel Farage to travel to Brussels to give a lecture on the untenable situation Britain was in. This incident will be seen as the effect of Muslim conservatism on the liberal British society. A further reason why Brexit was justified to limit the influx of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. It’s another red herring to feed the xenophobic minds of the 17.4m who believe that immigrants are the root of their problem.

The utter bigotry of the xenophobic faction of Britain, who is sure to earn a mileage from this incident is blatantly disgusting. People who express their dismay in the intolerance of the Muslim community in Saltley are perhaps the ones who instil homophobia in their children. It’s probably these stalwarts of tolerance who protest at the supermarkets when they make all their meat supplies halal. It’s probably these beacons of liberalism who squirm hearing someone speak a language that’s not English. Where the country would be without these gems of Britain, the only group of people to withhold the true British Values? And that’s why, on the august day of 23rd June 2016, these saviours, the modern day Knight’s Templars finally won the crusade against the barbaric invasion that was the “swarms of refugees” heading towards the UK. The Brexit result was the manifestation of the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic bias of the general public, brainwashed by the profiteering peddlers of the Leave campaign.

It is therefore unfortunate that the after carrying on with the No Outsiders course for over two years, the protests not only meant a lost opportunity for the children to learn acceptance and tolerance towards the LGBTQ community but also, this will fuel the hostility towards the Muslim community. A community that is already branded for harbouring extremist feelings by the nationalist press and media, this will only marginalise the Muslim community, another little hurrah from the Brexiters. Needless to say the persecutions faced by the LGBTQ community in the UK will see no improvements if more and more schools keep dropping it. I don’t know what the future holds for Mr Moffat, not the pupils of the Parkfield primary school, but I do hope that the protesting parents realise the repercussions of their action, not just for the parents, but for the long term future of their children being integrated into the society. Let’s hope that the parents and the education trust will reach a resolution in favour of continuing with the curriculum. Let common sense prevail over bigotry and prejudices.

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Culture, Film review, Films, Russia

I won’t come back (Я Не Вернюсь) – A fable on screen

I recently came across a Russian film called I won’t come back, or Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) in Russian. It took a while to decide which one to watch, from a list of films by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Michael Haneke. And I chose to watch the film by an unknown Estonian director Ilmar Raag. But after watching it, I can say the much-cliched phrase that you’ve only failed when you stopped trying. Failing, in this context, is not knowing the world of the parallel cinema, not knowing about a different world away from glitzy Hollywood and Bollywood, not witnessing life in another part of the world so less represented in the media. I won’t come back is a powerful film about two orphans fighting their corner in the world and their desperate search for love. The harsh realities of life, laced with short tales providing a poetic, magical, getaway from the sombre undertone of the storyline, and a brilliant cinematography spanning the vast expanse of the Russian countryside to the Altai mountains in Kazakhstan — the result of the eclectic mix is unforgettable. And above all, I won’t come back portrays career defining performances by Polina Pushkaruk and young Vika Lobacheva.

Russian trailer for the film
(Source: YouTube)

Polina portrays Anya, who grew up in an orphanage, and she becomes a lecturer in an university. There, she falls in love with a professor, but he has a family with children. One day she was accused of hiding drugs she didn’t know about, and she escapes the arrest. To avoid being taken in custody, Anya goes to an orphanage claiming she’s fifteen, and there she meets Kristine, a thirteen-year-old girl, who is bullied by other inmates. Anya defends her, and Kristine began to trust Anya. When Kristine tells Anya that she knows a secret way out, Anya runs away one day, only to find Kristine following her, pleading to take her to her grandma in Kazakhstan. Thus begins the voyage to Kazakhstan, with very little money between them. They had to hitchhike. On the way, Anya receives a call from Andrey, that all charges against her were dropped and she should come back to the uni. Thus begins the clash between the two characters, both desperate to find a tie, a sense of belonging and being loved — Anya, in her lover and Kristine, in her grandma. Anya tries to send Kristine to Kazakhstan in a train but fails. Through various dramatic sequences, it emerges that these two girls needed each other, more than they agreed to admit. But when Kristine said to Anya, she refused to admit it, resulting in Kristine running away and hitchhiking alone in a car leaving Anya behind. After a day of searching for her, Anya finds her alone, walking along the snow covered road in the upcoming winter. Anya finally realises how much she loved Kristine and decided to travel to Kazakhstan. Then in a sudden twist of fate, as they waited for a car, a drunk driver skids and hits the shed where Kristine was resting, killing her instantly. Anya in her grief realised that she’d become an orphan again, and lost the only human being who loved her unconditionally. The film then shows resolute Anya telling Andrey that she’s not coming back, and finally reaches the village in the Altai mountains. Kristine’ grandmother mistakes Anya to be Kristine, and Anya carried on with the lie, to finally find a place to call home.

Ya ne vernus a magical film, despite its dark and sad undertone. A number of scenes were truly emotional, and Polina and Vika made those instances realistic as though the tension between them was palpable. Instances worth specific mention are the time when Anya leaves a howling Kristine in the cemetery petrified of the wolves, or when Kristine kept asking Anya to admit she loved her but Anya kept refusing. Perhaps the most heart-rending scene was when Kristine suddenly dies. With the two girls finally agreeing to go to Kazakhstan, and the viewers expecting a journey to Kristine’a grandmother for a happily ever after, the suddenness of her death left us speechless. Perhaps Anya’s grief in the film moved at a faster pace than the viewers realising that Kristine, the eccentric and dreamy teenager is actually dead. No miracle is happening, Anya won’t be taking her to a farm where Vika would be treated and recover.

Yet, despite the dreary backdrop throughout the film, it also highlights the strength of a relationship. The mythical interjections in the film, mostly by the dreamy Kristine, gave the film a fantastic aura. These short intervals of fantasy take the viewers’ attention away from the harsh reality of the central theme. Scenes like Kristine introducing herself to Anya telling there are an eagle and a dog inside her who talk to her all the time, or that she had wings but they were broken and she couldn’t fly anymore because God only gives you wings once. We’ll remember Kristine pouring soda on the road so the road sends them a lift, and that of the swan and the girl kept us hoping that there is something positive happening to these girls. We see the relationship between Anya and Kristine evolve with a background of the out and about places in Russia, captured by the fabulous cinematography — from a busy city to the Altai mountains, from a dark, snow-laden cemetery at night, to busy service stations. The film presented slices of Russian life and culture through various imageries, perfectly blended into the storyline, such as the tale of the swan, as they walked past a deserted lake. As much as the unforgettable character portrayals of Polina Pushkaruk and Vika Lobacheva, the cinematography by Tuomo Hutri was a treat.

“There was a girl in the orphanage. One day she ran away from everyone. She came across a lake and saw a swan. She asked the swan to take her away. So the swan picked her up in his beak and flew away. The swan put the girl in his house. But he went away to see his kids and the girl saw him less and less. One day the girl jumped in the water. But she didn’t drown and turned into a fish. The swan came back and couldn’t see the girl. He began to cry. The fish-girl could see the swan but she couldn’t speak to him. From that day, the fish would come up to the surface every day and see her swan cry”

However, it’s the the relationship between the characters of Anya and Kristine — the turmoils and their love, is the tour de force in Ya ne vernus. Anya’s character is shown as an intelligent young woman, finding her place in the world putting the life in the orphanage behind her. However, as much as she appeared confident in professional life, she seemed helplessly desperate in her personal life. She was looking for stability throughout the film, and that’s why knowing that she had no hope of getting Andrey leave his family for her, Anya clung on to him. Her only hope, still, was to stay in the city she was living and pray that Andrey leaves his wife and family one day. Until then, at least she can still be in an affair with him. Kristine, on the other side, had nothing in the city. She has no relatives, she’s bullied by all the inmates of the orphanage. All she had was a small tin box, inside which was a crumpled photo with an address of a remote village in Kazakhstan, where her grandma lived. Living in a shelter knowing that she had a living relative made her flee one shelter to another until she met Anya who, unlike others, was ready to stand up to anyone harassing Kristine. Kristine saw her like a big sister, she felt loved and cared for. And she felt secure. But her ultimate goal was to reach Chemolgan, the village in Kazakhstan where her grandma lived. It appeared as though one of these girls will have to make a sacrifice or will be separated forever. If Anya goes to Kazakhstan, she’ll never see Andrey again, and if she went back to the city, Kristine will not see her Grandma. It was as if the destiny was playing a cruel roulette with their fate, where whichever path they chose, they will lose one significant person in their life. The director Ilmar Raag depicted through some unforgettable scenes how Anya opened up her feelings towards Kristine, and that the feeling she felt towards Andrey was slowly fading away.

Polina Pushkaruk was phenomenal in portraying the role of Anya but it’s the young Vika Lobacheva who stole the heart away of the viewers. She made the character of dreamy and feisty Kristine very real to the audience. It was amazing acting by a young actor and I wonder why she wasn’t nominated for the best young actors. I was surprised to find out later that Vika Lobacheva actually spent a large part of her childhood in social care. Ya ne vernus is an exceptional film, magically woven by talented Ilmar Raag and supported by the lead actors Polina and Vika. Adding the cinematography featuring the vast expanse of the Russian countryside, it made I won’t come back one of the phenomenal films I’ve watched recently. Many would argue that this may be classed as a road movie, but I’d strongly oppose that notion. It’s true that a large part of the film is about the journey for the two women towards Kazakhstan, but it’s much more than a road movie — it’s a tale about finding home and love. To me, it was a fable, a string of magical moments joined together to a bleak storyline. I’m glad that I made the choice to watch Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) over the other films I was tempted by, or else I would have missed this rare gem. It was a lesson, that sometimes it’s worth following a hunch, and not just for choosing which films to watch.

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