The Australian Educational Researcher

, Volume 45, Issue 3, pp 401–417 | Cite as

Class, honour and reputation: gendered school choice practices in a migrant community

  • Taghreed Jamal Al-deen


In this paper, I draw on a qualitative study of Iraqi-born Muslim mothers in Australia exploring how they navigate choosing secondary schools for their daughters. While the mothers interviewed for this study agreed on the importance of education and its role in facilitating upward social mobility for all their children, they articulated a specific and more complex set of concerns in relation to selecting schools for their daughters. This article suggests that families’ positions in the Australian diasporic Iraqi community are tied to girls’ schooling and, therefore, school choices are heavily gendered and contribute to a gendered structuring of family and community life. By analysing the narratives of Iraqi-born mothers, a deeper understanding emerges of the complex and varied outlooks of migrant Muslim parents on education and gender in their everyday practices of raising and educating their daughters.


School choice Migrant mothers Muslim girls Gender Family reputation Honour 


Studies undertaken in western settings (for example, Griffith and Smith 2005; Reay 1998a, b) suggest that mothers are more involved than fathers not only in their children’s day-to-day care, but also in their education. These studies demonstrate the interplay of gender and class in maternal involvement in education. However, the study of migrant mothers as a distinct category of mothers involved in their children’s education has received insufficient attention in the literature to date. Authors addressing this subject argue that migrant mothers encounter specific difficulties participating effectively in their children’s educational activities. These difficulties include linguistic and cultural barriers, lack of knowledge of the particular education system their children inhabit, feelings of discrimination and limited school support (Blackledge 2001; Sohn and Wang 2006; Lopiz Rodriguez 2010).

This paper focuses on the secondary school choices of migrant Iraqi mothers for their daughters in Australia. The literature on migrant mothers points to the importance of attending to intersections of class and other social categories, such as gender, race/ethnicity and religion (for example, Abbas 2007; Aitchison 2010; Byrne and De Tona 2012; Reay et al. 2007), instead of focussing on class alone, particularly as migration is often a process of contradictory social mobility (Parreñas 2001). For most of the Iraqi Muslim women interviewed for this study, migration has obfuscated their homeland class position, and thus their lived experiences challenge conventional notions of class position in relation to school choice in Australia (Windle 2015). This study extends class analysis of school choice through a consideration of gender and ethnic values, including religious and cultural values, of Iraqi mothers living in Australia.

This paper specifically aims to demonstrate how the importance of family status, reputation and honour —as represented by girls’ behaviour, virtue and manners, as well as greater social mobility opportunities resulting from education—influence mothers’ school choices. It shows that these choices reflect both resources and location within the Iraqi community in Australia. It also demonstrates how family standing in the community is uniquely tied to girls’ schooling, resulting in school choices becoming heavily gendered and contributing to a gendered structuring of family and community. In this way, the paper contributes to an understanding of Muslim migrant families’ educational choices, in particular by highlighting the influence of familial gender dynamics on school selection. Through analysing the narratives of Iraqi-born Muslim mothers, it shows the complex and varied approaches of migrant Muslim parents to education and gender in their everyday practices of raising and educating their daughters.

Mothers, migration and school choice

Literature on migrant mothers suggests that despite the obstacles they face as migrants, many are intimately and effectively involved in their children’s education (Chanderbhan-Forde 2010; Jamal Al-deen and Windle 2015, 2016; Lopiz Rodriguez 2010). Effective involvement in this milieu is shaped by the demands and discursive constructions of the educational field migrant mothers inhabit, as well as the way mothers perceive their relationship to this field. Archer and Francis (2006) found that the key strategy used by migrant families for maximising the chances of their children’s educational achievement is the ‘creation and deployment of “family capital”’ by “drawing upon and creating forms of social, cultural and economic capital and providing a habitus in which the expectation of mobility forms a central narrative” (Archer and Francis 2006, p. 42). Migrant families acknowledge the importance of education as a means to upward social mobility, particularly for their daughters (Clark 2009; Fathi 2016; Ijaz and Abbas 2010).

The present precarious neoliberal environment adds an extra layer of pressure for parents and children navigating school choices, as education is increasingly seen as the key to success in highly competitive and insecure job markets. Economic restructuring and increasing wealth inequality, with the resulting “temporary, part-time, flexible employment [being] unnerving, risk-laden and conflictual” (Elliott 2013, p. 138), has led to an intensified focus on education as a tool to maintain and improve social positioning. As a result, there is an increasing emphasis not only on educational qualifications, but also on the threat of sanctions against those who fail to do well at school (Teese 2007).

Neoliberalism can also be defined by changes to subjectivity and by accompanying discourses of responsibilisation. People are encouraged to think of themselves as ‘autonomous agents’ who must constantly reconstruct themselves through a sense of personal responsibility (Walkerdine et al. 2001, p. 2). Girlhood has also been reshaped by these discourses. Girls are seen as productive economic figures, powerful, autonomous and a symbol for social change and mobility (Harris 2004; Ringrose 2007). Research on girls and parents from different class and ethnic backgrounds has found that a common concern expressed by both groups was obtaining a good education (Ahmad 2001; Fathi 2016; Ijaz and Abbas 2010). As a result, some migrant mothers, impacted by neoliberal discourses, reconstruct their mothering practices in relation to the schooling of their children (Jamal Al-deen and Windle 2016).

An ample body of research has shown that parents across diverse social groups, and particularly mothers, face pressure to acquire places for their children in ‘good’ schools that will deliver the necessary education for them to secure professional careers (Abbas 2007; Aitchison 2010; Ball 2003; Byrne and De Tona 2012; Campbell et al. 2009; Windle 2015). School choice thus signals value that can be understood as both an assertion of good parenting and of social status within a marketised consumer society (Aitchison 2010). Within the literature related to girls and school choice, class continues to be the predominant lens used to understand school selection (for example, Clark 2009; Allan and Charles 2014). More work is needed to engage with the intertwining aspects of class, gender, ethnicity and religion. In particular, research needs to find ways of identifying the ways cultural and religious norms and values are operationalised and enforced in the process of school choice, in particular for Muslim girls. The small number of studies of the experiences of Muslim girls in schools has found that while most immigrant Muslim parents’ value education and success for their daughters, they are also concerned about the effect of western social and cultural values (Abbas 2003; Ahmad 2001; Keddie 2012).

Family status, reputation and honour

Cultural notions that most concern many migrant families, in particular those of South Asian, Latino and Middle Eastern backgrounds, include reputation and honour, particularly as they relate to intimacy and female sexual modesty. Werbner (2007) found that in the migration context, reputation and honour amongst Pakistani immigrants from different religious backgrounds is deeply embedded in family, extended family and community politics. Female sexual modesty, which has dominated social relations between families, kin and tribes in pre-migration settings, particularly rural ones, continues to do so post-migration. Such modesty is perceived as a public symbol of family honour and therefore males have the right to control female bodies in order to protect it (Werbner 2007). In Iraq, the phenomenon of sharaf (honour) and sumaa (reputation) permeate society and greatly affect the lives of women and girls.

Modest dress including hijab (the Islamic headscarf) is perceived as an external public symbol of family honour in most patriarchal Muslim societies (Werbner 2007); importantly, it is also perceived as a religious obligation by some Muslim women, including the mothers who participated in this study. Within feminist scholarship hijab has multiple and shifting meanings: it can be a symbol of women’s submission to men or a symbol of religiosity and political protest, in particular after 9/11 (Hamzeh 2011; Keddie 2016; Zine 2006). As a result, it is challenging to identify any single meaning of veiling, given the diverse constructions of shame, as well as the politics of embodiment, piety and political resistance with which it is associated.

Honour is a broad concept which refers not only to the politics of female sexuality, but also to family status, and the formation of respectable identities and public reputation within the community and wider society. Bourdieu describes honour as a ‘symbolic capital that exists through repute, or the representation others have of it’ (1998, p. 47). It is a reciprocal structure that entails recognition and is experienced as critical to a shared set of beliefs amongst a social group. Honour provides a framework for members of a group to perceive and value certain patterns of conduct as honourable or dishonourable. Educational achievements, and related pedagogical pathways, are strongly related to honour through the formation of a respectable and moral self. According to Skeggs (2004) the process of creating a respectable, classed and moral self conceives of culture, such as educational accomplishments, is an exchangeable value that can contribute to the overall value of personhood. In addition, Skeggs (2004) identifies the ways in which classed selves are embodied and practised through dispositions to form distinctive boundaries between the self and the other. Thus, Skeggs demonstrates the ways in which exchangeable value “has always been associated with the proper and is imbued with morality, those who cannot accrue value in themselves by dominant symbolic techniques are therefore always/already read as immoral” (2004, p. 91). Education from the perspective of Islam and the Iraqi culture, as articulated by the participants in this study, is a moral value that can add to the honour and reputation of the family. An Iraqi household with well-educated children is seen to reflect good parenting, which largely contributes to the honour of the family; providing that such children, and girls in particular, successfully adhere to moral codes to which they are subject.


This study was designed to examine Iraqi Muslim migrant mothers’ experiences of involvement in their children’s, particularly their daughters’, education. Its qualitative approach allowed for in-depth explorations of the participants’ experiences, perceptions and beliefs, as well as the cultural and social resources mothers employ in engaging with their children’s educational activities. The initial sample group was recruited through community associations in the Australian city of Melbourne and further participants identified through the snow-balling technique. The associations included: the Iraqi Muslim community in the northern suburbs of Melbourne; an Arab–Iraqi community association located in a south-eastern suburb in Melbourne; and three Iraqi ethnic schools which provide classes to Iraqi students outside mainstream school hours to enable them to maintain their mother tongue, located in north-west, east and south-east areas of Melbourne. In total, 25 mothers were recruited, with all but three being interviewed at least twice. Data were collected through audio-taped, face-to-face, semi-structured interviews conducted in Arabic, the participants’ as well as the author’s native language. Pseudonyms have been accorded to all participants in the reporting of the research.

The majority of participants lived in areas with relatively high populations of migrants and residents with low socio-economic status. All of the mothers had children enrolled in public and/or private (including Islamic) primary and/or secondary schools. All had resided in Australia for a minimum of 2 years and held permanent resident visas or were Australian citizens. Most participants came from the centre or the south of Iraq. The women and/or their husbands and children had been forced to leave Iraq due to war, life-threatening situations or otherwise intolerable living conditions. Only two of the participants were in paid employment in Australia although others had previously pursued professional careers in Iraq. Seven of the mothers held bachelor degrees, 4 held diplomas from technical and further education institutions, 3 others had completed secondary school, and the remaining 11 had at most incomplete secondary school studies.

Since this was a small-scale study, it is not possible to generalise its results to the wider Iraqi community in Australia. However, the small scope of this study allowed an in-depth qualitative approach to be adopted, providing a basis for further studies on migrant families and the education of their children. Moreover, the cultural understandings shared by the author and the participants allowed for more meaningful questions to be asked and facilitated deeper comprehension of verbal and non-verbal expressions as well as sensitive cultural issues. This insider positionality also offers more rapid and complete acceptance by the participants; the resulting openness provides further depth to the data collected and helps assure the validity of findings. The following sections explore the themes emerging from an analysis of the interviews.

Findings and discussion

Achieving respectability

Most participants in this study had high expectations of their daughters’ education, expectations that were deeply embedded in their own personal history and educational experiences. Many of these mothers, the data suggested, selected schools based on their perception of the quality of education provided, including standards of academic achievement. However, while mothers clearly prioritised these criteria, they also looked for a combination of other factors, such as ethnic mix, school reputation and disciplinary climate. Malak, for instance, endeavoured to choose a public secondary school for her daughters that would not only facilitate high academic achievement, but also comply with her wider expectations of school discipline and school students’ behaviour:

We have a pretty good school in the area but I didn’t want my daughters to go there because I noticed the kids attending the school are not well behaved. The majority of the kids are from Afghani background and some are Iraqis but we didn’t want my daughters to mix with them because they are not well-behaved.

She explained further:

We1 decided to send them to another school. It is far but I don’t mind driving… Most of the kids are from South Asian backgrounds and I feel their parents are like us. They want them to behave well and do well at school… the school puts restrictions on uniform. I’ve noticed the girls wear quite long skirts and dresses at least down to knee level… At the old school, girls smoke in the toilets and wear school skirts half a meter above the knee, with tonnes of make-up on their faces.

The aforementioned comments highlight the importance of the educational and social orientation of other students as a factor in mothers’ decision-making about schools. The mothers may be said to be seeking a match between the habitus of other students’ families with their own and with those of the school. They consciously and unconsciously distinguished themselves and their families from other families, particularly from certain other Iraqi families. Campbell et al. (2009, p. 145), in their study of middle-class parents’ negotiation of the new school market in Australia, found that in choosing a peer group that is suitable for their children, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ groups were very often defined by social class, ethnicity and other categorical forms of identity. Mothers like Malak choose defensively by avoiding what they perceive to be particular ‘bad’ types of children.

An important aspect of school choice for the mothers interviewed was their desire for their daughters to attend a school with ‘good’ students in order to obtain or protect a class practice or strategy that contributes to the accrual of the right sort of cultural capital. While class acts, according to Goffman (1982), lose their meaning when they are performed outside a specific context or region, the narratives of the mothers interviewed showed that some practices, such as disciplining the children academically, can transcend specific spaces and regions. As Malak said, “I always tell my daughter to focus on education only”.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that some of the mothers interviewed were not willing to identify with their local social contexts. This phenomenon was particularly pronounced in cases of Iraqi Muslims who perceived themselves as having come from respectable backgrounds in Iraq but who now reside in low socio-economic areas. As such, they distanced themselves and their children from other Iraqi families in the community, as well as other migrant groups and the majority group whose children do not display appropriate manners. These mothers’ perceptions of certain public schools were often linked to notions of immorality and lack of manners, and as a result, they did not want their children to be part of these school communities. Ethnicity, class, gender and religious orientation are symbolised in behaviour, represented by comments such as “girls … wear school skirts half a meter above the knee”, and transmitted and circulated in the currency of a school’s reputation.

For the majority of the participants, migration was an experience of downward social mobility that constituted ‘transnational class processes’; nonetheless, some of the mothers in this study used strategies in relation to their daughters’ schooling that approximate those used by non-immigrant middle-class families in Australia (Jamal Al-deen and Windle 2015). Educational qualifications were seen to provide better career prospects, and thus upward social mobility, by contributing to the process of self-accrual. Self-accrual through education, in addition to being highly regarded in Islam and in Iraqi society, was experienced by the participants in this study as a moral good with a particular exchange value in the context of their migration. As a result, it is understood as morally beneficial and as a mechanism that can enhance the overall value of personhood (Skeggs 2004), in this case girlhood. For example, Nadia said:

In Iraq, education is valued. When you tell people you are a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer, they respect you. Not just in Iraq even here, people would respect you if you tell them you have good education and good career. I think it is everywhere in the world. It makes a big difference, with good qualification, you can have better job and better life, you serve your society and humanity. Even in Quran, some verses clearly stress on seeking knowledge and education. Allah says in Quran: are those who know equal to those who do not know?

In this quote, Nadia describes the notion of respectability as being shaped by an Islamic culture and religion, but also represents it as a somewhat universal value associated with being well educated. The mothers’ strong desire for their daughters to be high academic achievers signifies their quest to establish a respectable identity: “the most ubiquitous signifier of class” (Skeggs 1997, p. 1). The mothers’ discussions of class can be read within the cultural and Islamic discourses on the morality of education, wherein education is understood as highly valuable and entwined with morality. But they can also be read this way within a western framing, wherein morality is seen to be an element of class when an individual’s class status needs validation through humanity and domesticity discourses to create the necessary difference between middle classes and working classes (Lawler 2005). As Skeggs (2004) argues, making a respectable self is the core aspect of class mobility, with access to good education, class actors “define themselves as a self against the mass who only present the immoral constitutive limit; the immoral cannot inhabit a proper personhood and therefore cannot accrue value to themselves” (Skeggs 2004, p. 91). Thus, the formation of a respectable self through moralising education in the mothers’ country of origin is similar in many ways to those of the west.
The mothers interviewed in this study also expected that a good education and future career for their daughters would be proof of good mothering, maintain the family’s honour and reputation, and provide a source of agency for their daughters to challenge serious ethnic and religious prejudice. Research has shown that racial harassment has been exacerbated in the post 9/11 era and that racist abuse is a lived and daily experience for some Muslim students in western countries, both in and out of schools (Kamp and Mansouri 2010; Zine 2006). Keddie (2016) found that Islamophobia was a daily and inescapable struggle for Muslim girls in Australian schools, particularly in cases of girls who observe hijab. Western media, including in Australia, portrays Muslim women as victims of, and oppressed by, a patriarchal religion and culture. Some mothers spoke about the racial abuse they faced in society and that their children, in particular their daughters, faced at school. One response to such abuse for the mothers in this study was to focus on education as a mechanism to empower their daughters and to prove to the Australian public that Islam is not a sexist religion and that Muslim women can be highly educated. Sahar was very keen to send her daughter to a selective state school that offers places to students who excel in its competitive entry exam:

I pushed her really hard to sit for the test… She has to have a good education to raise our heads. People think Muslim women are not well-educated and didn’t go to school in their countries. I was surprised when one of the female students at a course I did few years ago approached me and asked: did Taliban allow you to go to school? I laughed and told her I am from Iraq and I have a degree in civil engineering. They think Muslim women have no brain because we wear hijab. They think we are like sheep and led by men. I want my daughter to show people that she, as a Muslim girl wearing hijab, has a brain like other girls and can get into these schools and get a good education.

In addition to  being positioned as responsible for protecting their families’ honour and reputation through their gender modesty and sexual chastity, Muslim women like Sahar and her daughter have to challenge sexist and racist discourses of Islamophobia. Sahar’s narrative indicates that Muslim young women’s enduring suffering of racist and Islamophobic harassment might come to an end with good education or perhaps education can provide some level of protection by providing greater social, cultural and economic resources. Research on British South Asian females has also highlighted how girls and women use education and social mobility as a strategy for tackling racism (Ahmad 2001; Shain 2003). Mothers’ control over educational choices is perceived to guarantee not only financial security, but also a moral life and empowerment in the face of racial and religious prejudice.

Indeed mothers like Sahar believed that good education could be a tool to empower girls within discourses of racism and sexism. In the new competitive meritocracy, ambitions for “top girls-as ideal subjects of female success” (McRobbie 2007, p. 718) were encouraged, flourished and controlled within the families of these mothers. The mothers believed that what secures their children’s, in particular daughters’ location in society is their elite profession and a rewarding career which enable them to be independent and respected by others within the wider society. Iranian female doctors in Fathi’s (2016) study used their medical profession to show that they are respectable immigrants and equal to those who live in the UK. These migrant female doctors believed that their qualifications made them respectable citizens of the country, and also that they were subject to less racism as a result. Respected jobs presumably provide young women with a capital that has a currency and validity within societal power relations. However, as argued by Archer (2010, p. 466), minority middle class children can still face challenges, as “their racialised positionings qualify and curtail key aspects of class advantage”.

Thus far, honour has been investigated in relation to the struggle for reputation, status and position; honour represents ‘symbolic capital’ that can be invested in order to improve social mobility and contribute to the reputation not only of the family but also the wider Muslim community.

Community gossip and the myth of male protection

Where Iraqis live in concentrated residential clusters, as many participants observed, control is often exercised through gossip and the threat of a scandal that would diminish a family’s reputation and honour. Seeking to avoid community gossip around children’s manners and actions, in particular girls’ sexual modesty, had a major impact on the school choices made by mothers in this study. In some cases, mothers preferred not to send their daughters to schools attended by extended family members, friends’ children or even children from the community in order to protect their own reputations. As Huda explained, “rumours spread quickly, and if the girls ever did anything foolish, people in the community would blame the parents, especially the mothers”.

Concern about reputation and honour is distinctive and was shared amongst all mothers in this study. Windle (2008) found that the importance of honour to the social standing of a Muslim family is often evoked to guide community norms. Parents of the students in Windle’s study justified their strictness based on the power of gossip and ‘what people are going to say’.

While the presence of the extended family and the community at a school may represent a form of social capital, providing an important source of support for the children and their parents, it can also be understood as undesirable or even dangerous. For example, in Nahla’s words:

Her father had to move her [Nahla’s daughter] to another school where there were no Iraqi kids because they were rumours in the community that she was not behaving well and wagging school and went out with a boy to watch a movie…We felt disappointed when we learnt. It definitely affected our family reputation. People might say her mother is bad because she hasn’t raised her properly. This could affect the family reputation in Iraq as well.

The interview data in this study suggested a dominant discourse of motherhood as an idealised repository of traditions and norms that regulate daughters’ behaviour for the purpose of determining and defining family honour and reputation. Consequently, the burdens and complexities of cultural representation fall heavily on diasporic Iraqi Muslim mothers and their daughters. Nahla’s narrative suggests that her concerns about family honour and reputation transcend far beyond possible repercussions in local social spaces to those in her society of origin in Iraq. Previous studies, in particular on South Asian migrant families in the UK, have shown that the concept of honour and shame is central to understanding kin relations and an attachment amongst migrants to their countries of origin as home despite the lived experience of migration (Brah 1996; Mallett 2004; Shaw 2000; Tayler 2014). The potentially transnational nature of a loss of honour adds another layer of complexity to the challenges faced by mothers raising their daughters post-migration. On the other hand, other mothers preferred to send their daughters to schools attended by family members and/or friends’ children in order to take advantage of family and friends’ assistance in providing information about occurrences at the school and communicating with school staff. These mothers displayed a strong level of protectiveness of their daughters’ moral welfare, as Mariam’s words suggest:

We send them [her daughters] to this school because we have a few relatives’ and friends’ kids there… At least when a problem happens to them or if they misbehave, we would hear about it… We don’t want them going off with boys or undesirable friends and getting into trouble…

Mariam’s narrative indicated that she was concerned about her daughters’ conduct and, as a result, tried to observe this behaviour through the eyes of others. The presence of extended family and the community facilitates ongoing surveillance. This type of behaviour, particularly of male relatives observing female behaviour, is common in rural areas of Iraq. For example, when females attend universities in another city, parents make sure there is a male relative or family friend who studies at the same university or in the same city who can act as an older brother to support and keep an eye on their daughter. This is not necessarily because parents do not trust their daughters, it is more about protecting them from strangers who may ruin their reputations. Studies of young South Asian girls in the UK indicate that those who attend college are subject to attempts to control their conduct, not only by brothers and relatives, but also by young men from their communities more generally (Alexander 2000; Jacobson 1998). However, it is possible that these males, as second-generation migrants, may have different perceptions to that of Mariam and may perceive traditional Iraqi male–female relations differently.
It is also noteworthy that concerns of mothers who participated in this study were gendered: all mothers agreed that their daughters should be educated, and all were more concerned about the process of choosing schools for their daughters than they were in the case of their sons. Mothers were particularly worried about sending their daughters to co-educational public schools due to fears surrounding possible interactions between boys and girls, particularly pre-marital sexual relations and the implications of these for their families’ reputations. This gendered apprehension was particularly apparent amongst the mothers who lived in low socio-economic areas with a large number of other Iraqi families. Nidhal selected a girls’ only school for her daughters, but seemed happy to send her son to a co-educational public school.

Nidhal: Boys won’t ruin the family reputation to large extent if they go astray… People won’t talk that much if my son has a girlfriend… Most Iraqi families send their daughters to this school. At least we make sure they won’t have relations with boys.

Me: Does this mean you don’t worry about your son?

Nidhal: Of course we do. We don’t want him to mix with bad guys and be involved in gangs or drugs.

This reticence to send their daughters to co-educational schools can be explained by the concept of honour and shame that is exclusively associated with girls’ modesty. Single sex schools and in some cases Islamic schools are seen as ideal spaces as they seclude girls from the world of boys. There was a constant anxiety amongst the mothers interviewed about whether their daughters would deviate from the right path. Young Muslim women in Keddie’s (2016) study critiqued the inequity and unfairness of the cultural and traditional practises which allow Muslim men and boys relative freedom in their sexual and social relations while girls are responsible for sexual chastity and the honour and reputation of the family. Although these cultural practices have been challenged by many Muslim feminists such as Mernissi (1991), Wadud (1999) and others aiming for new understandings of Islam in relation to gender equality and gender relations, they are prominent not only within Muslim diasporic communities but also in other non-Muslim communities originating from the Middle East.
In addition, a few of the mothers who preferred single sex schools for their daughters were also wary of girls pursing higher education due to the perceived threat posed by an environment of independence and possible socialisation with boys. I asked Nahla about her opinion on mixing with males at a university level, assuming her daughter would go to university, but she answered:

We don’t have girls who are allowed to go to university. She will get married after finishing secondary school. We put this clearly when she started secondary school. We should make sure she is at her husband’s house and then it is up to her husband if he allows her to study at a university.

Nahla’s comments stand in contrast to those of most mothers who did not allude to the possibility of their daughters marrying young during the interviews. Rather, most mothers spoke of a desire for their daughters to obtain higher education qualifications and pursue professional careers before getting married. However, Nahla’s account shows that in her family, marriage is expected to coincide with the completion of secondary school. The Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights (AMWCHR) developed a research project on the issue of early marriage in response to an observed increase in the number of Muslim women choosing to marry at a young age (AMWCHR 2017). The study found that a lack of parental support to pursue higher education due to the perceived danger of mixing with males, cultural expectations of marriage as the only post-secondary school option and community gossip were amongst the reasons for girls dropping out of school, feeling unable to pursue their aspirations for further study and marrying young. To conclude, education is perceived by the mothers as a moral value and as a tool for upward social mobility; yet, the importance of maintaining and enhancing family honour continues to influence their daughters’ educational trajectories.

Concerns about modest dress

In many western countries, the way in which Muslim girls dress for school is deeply politicised and has a significant impact on the ability of Muslim women and girls to adhere to religious and culturally appropriate dress codes. In certain western discourses, the rise of radicalism in the Muslim world and its global spread is symbolised by women wearing the hijab and/or the niqab (face and head cover). This is evident in the movement to limit women wearing hijab and niqab. For example, France banned the hijab from state schools in 2004 as a reaction to the growing number of hijabi school girls.

In Australian public schools, however, Muslim girls are allowed to wear hijab, as long as they dress in school uniform colours. While some schools provide additional uniform options such as long skirts and dresses to meet Muslim girls’ preferences for modesty, others do not, causing a problem for a number of Muslim parents. The mothers interviewed in this study spoke of situations in which they felt they were not able to choose the school they desired for their daughters due that school making inadequate uniform allowances for Muslim students. Uniform was a point of disagreement between families and local public schools, leading some of the mothers to select Islamic schools, particularly for their daughters’ high school years. Suad explained that from a religious perspective girls must wear a long skirt (not trousers), but that the school uniform rules of her daughter’s former school required girls to wear a short skirt or trousers in winter and a dress in summer. After unsuccessful negotiations with the school principal “to make an arrangement for her to wear a long skirt or even to let her wear pants under the skirt”, the girl’s father decided to move her to a nearby Islamic school, even though the family was not satisfied by its academic performance. Suad stated:

We didn’t have any other option… Hijab is not only a piece of cloth to cover her hair. She should wear modest dress. We had to compromise on the education quality…. Sitir (modesty) is more important…this is Allah’s order. We as parents are responsible for raising them the way Allah wants.

Suad’s words indicate that freedom of choice in education is not absolute: it is limited by many constraints, such as economic, structural and cultural factors. Windle (2009, p. 240) suggests that in the process of school choice in Victoria (Australia) the ‘assumption of equal and universal accessibility to all schools, required for there to be freedom of choice, is a fiction’. In the case of Suad’s daughter, it was the school that made the choice rather than the parents. In some cases, the rise of parental rights in school choice fails to empower parents from ethnic minorities. Suad and her husband’s desire for a good education for their daughter at this particular public school was thwarted due to its inability to accommodate modest clothing options for students. Such objections by some public schools might be due to limited knowledge of the students’ faith traditions. This is certainly not to suggest that all public schools in Australia do not accommodate to Muslim students’ individual needs; a significant number of schools in Australia have successfully included and empowered Muslim students, including girls (Jamal Al-deen 2014).

In addition, Suad perceived hijab as a symbol of religiosity and considered that it is the parents’ duty to raise their girls according to the tenets of Islam. This shows that while cultural values play a critical role in school selection, so do religious values. In the case of Suad’s daughter, an Islamic school has replaced a quality public school, notwithstanding parents’ frequent dissatisfaction with the quality of education at the former. Islamic schools have become safe havens, particularly for girls who practise veiling. Veiled Muslim girls in Zine’s (2006) study felt a stronger sense of freedom in segregated Islamic schools as they were able to express their religious identities without a fear of being ridiculed or socially excluded in ways they may have been at public schools.

Muslim parents, as suggested by participants in this study, are also inclined to select Islamic education for their children, especially their daughters, because such schools can maintain stability and continuity between the children’s home and school lives. For many mothers in this study, being a Muslim and Iraqi girl was associated with cultural customs that are honoured in Iraq. Haifaa explained why her husband decided to send their daughters to Islamic schools:

Some of the girls from the community left home when they reached eighteen. My husband said maybe they teach them at [the public] school to become more independent and live by themselves when they are eighteen… In Iraq, a girl or boy cannot leave home until they get married.

When the mothers expressed dissatisfaction with the education their children received at non-Islamic schools, it seemed to have less to do with Islam and more to do with a lack of adequate moral instruction. In addition, there was a concern that the role of their culture in shaping their children’s attitudes and behaviour was ignored at public schools. In other words, Islamic schools were seen to provide a social and moral framework that is neglected by non-Islamic, in particular public, schools. The parents who chose Islamic schools did so due to a desire for a school culture that encouraged more discipline and morality, especially for girls. These findings are consistent with those of Ijaz and Abbas (2010) in their study of first generation South Asian Muslim parents. Their study highlighted parents’ fears that their daughters would become westernised or corrupted by western values by interacting with non-Muslim students in public schools.

Concluding thoughts

This paper has been an attempt to understand the concerns of Iraqi Muslim migrant mothers in relation to selecting schools for their daughters. Family honour and reputation, as the mothers’ narratives indicate, is maintained by daughters obtaining a good education, but such education must take place in environments which facilitate and support certain moral values, such as modesty. While the mothers recognised the importance of education for their daughters, their school choices were influenced by traditional and conservative cultural and Islamic norms. According to Islamic and Iraqi cultural discourses on motherhood, the transmission of norms and values to daughters in order to regulate their behaviour and maintain family honour is the responsibility of mothers in post-migration contexts. The mothers, as their accounts showed, played a significant role in their children’s lives, including by selecting their schools. While the selection of ‘good’ schools based on education quality was important, mothers’ choices were simultaneously defined by the struggle for recognition of family position, respectability, status and reputation with reference to their ethnic community as well as wider society.

Improving and maintaining respectability in relation to class location and the intensification of community vigilance is a responsibility that seems to fall most heavily on girls, something which—in Australia—is further encouraged by the structures of a competitive and stratified education system. Frustrations of diminished class status have increased reliance on symbolic forms of capital that have currency within the community, such as the education of children. But educational success is defined both internally (in relation to community honour and respectability) and externally (by the competitive system of ranked schools and courses). The prestige of educational success, including access to elite courses and professions, offers the chance of regaining class status in the next generation, as well as demonstrating collective gains in terms of honour and respectability. Girls are seen to be more of a reflection of their family’s efforts than boys, particularly in relation to respectability; however, class anxiety also contributes to the desire for educational success. Yet despite these common pressures, participant responses varied, with mobility being prioritised by some, and respectability by others, depending on the composition and total volume of capital held by the family in both the community and wider society. School choice for this group of mothers was not only affected by parents’ cultural and financial capital, but also by cultural modules linked to honour and reputation, grounded in some cases in their interpretation of Islamic rules. This transnational group of migrant mothers acted in accordance with their own cultural traditions not only because they are Muslim and Iraqi, but due to a fear of being stigmatised as mothers, in particular by others in their community, thereby threatening their social status and harming their family reputation.


  1. 1.

    The involvement of fathers in school choice is beyond the scope of this paper, but fathers were mentioned by some of the participants in this study. In this paper, ‘we’ as used by mothers refers to the mother and the father/family.


  1. Abbas, T. (2003). The impact of religio-cultural norms and values on the education of young South Asian women. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 24, 411–428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Abbas, T. (2007). British South Asians and pathways into selective schooling: Social class, culture and ethnicity. British Educational Research Journal, 33(1), 75–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ahmad, F. (2001). Modern tradition? British Muslim women and academic achievement. Gender and Education, 13, 137–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Aitchison, C. (2010). Good mothers go school shopping. In S. Goodwin & K. Huppatz (Eds.), The good mother: Contemporary motherhoods in Australia (pp. 89–110). Sydney: Sydney University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Alexander, C. E. (2000). The Asian gang: Ethnicity, identity, masculinity. Oxford: Berg.Google Scholar
  6. Allan, A., & Charles, C. (2014). Cosmo girls: Configurations of class and femininity in elite educational settings. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35(3), 333–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Archer, L. (2010). ‘We raised it with the Head’: The educational practices of minority ethnic, middle-class families. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 31(4), 449–469.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Archer, L., & Francis, B. (2006). Challenging classes? Exploring the role of social class within the identities and achievement of British Chinese pupils. Sociology, 40, 29–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights, AMWCHR. (2017). Marrying young: An exploratory study of young Muslim women’s decision-making around early marriage. Report. Retrieved July 25, 2017 from
  10. Ball, S. J. (2003). Class strategies and the education market: The middle classes and social advantage. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Blackledge, A. (2001). The wrong sort of capital? Bangladeshi women and their children’s schooling in Birmingham, U.K. International Journal of Bilingualism, 5(3), 345–369.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bourdiou, P. (1998). Practical reason on the theory of action. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  13. Brah, A. (1996). Cartographies of diaspora: Contesting identities. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  14. Byrne, B., & De Tona, C. (2012). ‘Trying to find the extra choices’: Migrant parents and secondary school choice in Greater Manchester. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33(1), 21–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Campbell, C., Procter, H., & Sherrington, G. (2009). School choice: How parents negotiate the new school market in Australia. Alameda, CA: Allen and Unwin.Google Scholar
  16. Chanderbhan-Forde, S. (2010). Asian Indian mothers’ involvement in their children’s schooling: An analysis of social and cultural capital. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of South Florida, Florida.Google Scholar
  17. Clark, S. (2009). A good education: Girls’ extracurricular pursuits and school choice. Gender and Education, 21(5), 601–615.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Elliott, A. (2013). Concepts of the self. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.Google Scholar
  19. Fathi, M. (2016). Becoming a woman doctor in Iran: The formation of classed and gendered selves. Gender and Education. Scholar
  20. Goffman, E. (1982). The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  21. Griffith, A., & Smith, D. (2005). Mothering for schooling. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  22. Hamzeh, M. (2011). Deveiling body stories: Muslim girls negotiate visual, spatial, and ethical hijabs. Race Ethnicity and Education, 14(4), 481–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Harris, A. (2004). Future girl: Young women in the twenty first century. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  24. Ijaz, A., & Abbas, T. (2010). The impact of inter-generational change on the attitudes of working-class South Asian Muslim parents on the education of their daughters. Gender and Education, 22(3), 313–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jacobson, J. (1998). Islam in transition: Religion and identity among British Pakistani youth. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  26. Jamal Al-deen, T. (2014). Carving in stone: The educational efforts of Iraqi mothers in Australia. Unpublished Dissertation, Monash University, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  27. Jamal Al-deen, T., & Windle, J. (2015). The involvement of migrant mothers in their children’s education: Cultural capital and transnational class processes. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 25(4), 278–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jamal Al-deen, T., & Windle, J. (2016). ‘I feel sometimes I am a bad mother’: The affective dimension of immigrant mothers’ involvement in their children’s schooling. Journal of Sociology, 53(1), 110–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kamp, A., & Mansouri, F. (2010). Constructing inclusive education in a neo-liberal context: Promoting inclusion of Arab–Australian students in an Australian context. British Educational Research Journal, 36(5), 733–744.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Keddie, A. (2012). Identity politics, justice and the schooling of Muslim girls: Navigating the tensions between multiculturalism, group rights and feminism. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35(3), 353–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Keddie, A. (2016). Disrupting (gendered) Islamophobia: The practice of feminist ijtihad to support the agency of young Muslim women. Journal of Gender Studies. Scholar
  32. Lawler, S. (2005). Disgusted subjects: The making of middle-class identities. The Sociological Review, 53, 429–446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lopiz Rodriguez, M. (2010). Migration and quest for ‘normalcy’. Polish migrant mothers and the capitalization of meritocratic opportunities in the UK. Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 16(3), 339–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mallett, S. (2004). Understanding home: A critical review of the literature. The Sociological Review, 52(1), 62–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. McRobbie, A. (2007). Top girls? Cultural Studies, 21(4), 718–737.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Mernissi, F. (1991). The veil and the male elite: A feminist interpretation of women's rights in Islam. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  37. Parreñas, R. S. (2001). Servants of globalization: Women, migration, and domestic work. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Reay, D. (1998a). Cultural reproduction: Mothers’ involvement in their children’s primary schooling. In M. Grenfell & D. James (Eds.), Bourdieu and education: Acts of practical theory (pp. 55–70). Bristol, PA: Falmer Press.Google Scholar
  39. Reay, D. (1998b). Engendering social reproduction: Mothers in the educational marketplace. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 19, 195–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Reay, D., Crozier, G., James, D., Hollingworth, S., Williams, K., Jamieson, F., et al. (2007). A darker shade of pale? Whiteness, the middle classes and multi-ethnic inner city schooling. Sociology, 41(6), 1041–1060.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Ringrose, J. (2007). Successful girls? Complicating post-feminist, neoliberal discourses of educational achievement and gender equality. Gender and Education, 19, 471–489.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Shain, F. (2003). The schooling and identity of Asian girls. Trentham: Stoke-on-Trent.Google Scholar
  43. Shaw, A. (2000). Kinship and continuity: Pakistani families in Britain. Amsterdam: Harwood.Google Scholar
  44. Skeggs, B. (1997). Formations of class and gender: Becoming respectable. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  45. Skeggs, B. (2004). Exchange, value and affect: Bourdieu and ‘The Self’. The Sociological Review, 52(2), 75–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sohn, S., & Wang, X. C. (2006). Immigrant parents’ involvement in American schools: Perspectives from Korean mothers. Early Childhood Education Journal, 34(2), 125–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Tayler, S. (2014). The diasporic pursuit of home and identity: Dynamic Punjabi transnationalism. The Sociological Review, 62, 276–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Teese, R. (2007). Time and space in the reproduction of educational inequality. In R. Teese, S. Lamb, & M. Duru-Bellat (Eds.), International studies in educational inequality, theory and practice (pp. 1–21). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  49. Wadud, A. (1999). Qur’an and woman: Rereading the sacred text from a woman’s perspective. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Walkerdine, V., Lucey, H., & Melody, J. (2001). Growing up girl: Psychosocial explorations of gender and class. Basingstoke: Palgrave.Google Scholar
  51. Werbner, P. (2007). Veiled interventions in pure space. Theory, Culture and Society, 24(2), 161–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Windle, J. A. (2008). Ethnicity and educational inequality: An investigation of school experience in Australia and France. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of Melbourne, Melbourne.Google Scholar
  53. Windle, J. A. (2009). The limits of school choice: Some implications for accountability of selective practices and positional competition in Australian education. Critical Studies in Education, 50(3), 231–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Windle, J. A. (2015). Making sense of school choice: Politics, policies and practice under conditions of cultural diversity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Zine, J. (2006). Unveiled sentiments: Gendered Islamophobia and experiences of veiling among Muslim girls in a Canadian Islamic school. Equity and Excellence in Education, 39(3), 239–252.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Australian Association for Research in Education, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Faculty of Arts & EducationDeakin UniversityBurwoodAustralia

Personalised recommendations