Listen to Us and Don’t Assume

Do you assume that only one message will do for young people?

Does the appearance of a young person tell you what to think about them?


Assumptions are quickly made about Muslims:

‘When people see you they make assumptions about you. When people see you with a long beard they think, “Oh my god, extremist!” when you could be a gentle soul, or when they see you as a hijabi [wearing an Islamic headscarf] who happens to be married, they just assume forced marriage or arranged marriage and you didn’t choose’. (Sana, 24, helpline worker)[1]

Perhaps it is just as easy to assume that everyone else is effectively non-religious. The girl in the hijab may be truanting to meet a boyfriend. Or she might be quietly at ease with the freedom from male attention it can give. The boy with low-slung trousers may be a devout Christian. Or he might be in a lifestyle that puts himself and others at risk. All eventualities are possible.

The range of beliefs and attitudes within a faith are such that no summary can tell you what every young person and their family actually believe. For some these beliefs and attitudes will be worked out and well thought through. For others they will just be ‘I think this because I’m a …’.

A difficulty for many professionals is the lack of time to spend finding out what young people really think. This makes it really important to listen to and observe responses carefully. In a classroom setting it is easy to make assumptions about what should be included in the lesson. However, often young people go away with questions unanswered and possibly information that they are not ready to receive.


The Question Box

One useful tool is the anonymous question box, described by Jo Sell of the Alternatives Education Team in Newham. ‘Every student in the class gets a piece of paper and has to put it in the question box, whether they have written a question on it or not. This makes sure that everyone has a chance to participate while remaining anonymous and without being singled out as someone who asked a question. The students can ask any questions they feel they want to and I will answer, unless it is inappropriate. This method helps even the shyest student, and enables the most difficult questions to be asked without embarrassment.’

Young people of faith often feel that the unspoken assumption of RSE materials and approaches is that they will soon be sexually active, and some resent this assumption. Such young people may feel included if they are reassured that for some of them this is ‘not for now’ but is still important, as it is the only time they may be formally taught about such things.

[1] In Young British Muslims and relationships.  Musab Younis;  Muslim Youth Helpline.  2010 available at