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PREMIÈRE PARTIE - Vivre l’école : dynamiques plurielles de construction des savoirs et des identités

A Focus on School Experiences in Arab and Muslim Contexts

Introduction to the thematic issue
Chloé Pellegrini
p. 17-24
Cet article est une traduction de :
Penser l’école par le vécu des acteurs en contextes arabes et musulmans [fr]

Texte intégral

1Everyday life within schools in the Arab and Muslim worlds has been a rarely documented research topic, as Chantal Verdeil stresses (2017). Existing studies, from global sociological and political perspectives, often focus on education and schooling from the outside. Few researchers enter these relatively inaccessible “black boxes”, though their everyday functioning and internal logics have a central role in the construction of individual, social, and national identities (Durkheim, 1922; Bernstein, 2000 [1996]; Forquin, 2008).

  • 1 It is often difficult, not to say impossible, to obtain official authorisation to conduct research (...)

2This is why the call for papers for this special issue originally had the ambition to identify and gather texts exploring everyday life, inner rhythms, and teaching and learning situations within schools in contemporary societies in Arab and Muslim contexts, regardless of their geographical region. However, the papers gathered here do not all draw on research conducted in-person in schools, notably due to access restrictions.1 Yet, beyond their geographical and disciplinary diversity, what they all have in common is a focus on the experiences of school actors in educative structures in Arab countries (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco), in Muslim countries (Iran, Turkey), and in countries and territories where Muslim populations either have had a strong historical presence (Israel, Mayotte, Tanzania), or have an immigrant background (Italy).

3Five articles draw on ethnographic observations in school buildings and classrooms: two in state schools in Turkey and Italy (Yilmaz; Masi), one in a private international school in Egypt (Roushdy), two in associative structures in Morocco and Lebanon (Belkadi; Spera). Three articles analyse historical sources (written and oral testimonies by alumni, teachers, and inspectors) to depict experiences and practices in schools during the first half of the 20th century in Iran, Iraq, and Tanzania (Bombardier and Koochakzadeh; Laval; Wenzek). Finally, three articles are based on interviews with teachers and/or parents in Israel, Morocco, and Mayotte (Mellal; Hari; Morano). Despite the diversity of their methodologies and research fields, these papers share common topics.

School Actors and the State

4Although approaches are qualitative, micro, and focused on actors, the relationship between schools and the State is prevalent in each paper. This shows how much educative experiences in schools are shaped by the degree of involvement or disinvolvement of the State in education, and by the official forms of national identity, morality, and relation to knowledge that teachers and students are engaged to develop, endorse, negotiate, and reshape in their everyday school practices. Hence, this special issue provides embodied examples to the existing literature on the development of modern school systems and the evolution of education policies, as those of Vermeren (2011) on the Maghreb, Verdeil (2017) on the Middle East, Honvault and Al-Rashoud (2019) on the Arabian Peninsula, or Honvault and Mussard (2023) on relationships between schools and the State in times of crisis. It also enters into dialogue with school ethnographies like those on nationalist and patriotic rituals in a high school for girls in Jordan (Adely, 2010), on practices of moral edification in different contexts in the Middle East (Adely and Starrett, 2011), or on the impact of social movements on schooling cultures in Egypt (Herrera and Torres, 2006).

5Thibaud Laval depicts how, in the first modern schools in Najaf, a holy Shiite city neglected by the mainly Sunni rulers of Iraq, pupils were trained to identify with the official national identity through learnings and activities centred on military rituals and parades, body discipline, and patriotic celebrations, while this education often put them at odds with their family and social environment. Ayşe Yilmaz describes how today, in state primary schools in Istanbul, despite the lack of official programmes in this regard, teachers, at their own initiative, organise school shows as occasions for patriotic celebrations, such as theatre representations where children act out sequences of heroic actions by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk or perform traditional dances from different regions of Turkey.

6Florence Wenzek shows that the egalitarian narratives of the new Tanzanian socialist State played a role in improving everyday school life for Muslim schoolgirls, by alleviating the discriminations they could face in Christian missionary and state schools, and by unifying the nation around moral values often shared and displayed by Muslim families.

7Alison Morano and Gabriele M. Masi highlight how Muslim pupils engage with the French and Italian republican school models’ expectations in terms of cognitive training and citizen education in state schools. The former addresses this issue in Mayotte, a French overseas department where more than 95% of the population is Muslim and where the national educational system has long been neglected by the State. The latter focuses on literacy learning practices by Muslim first Italian-born children of migrants in Lonato Del Garda in Italy.

8Three papers, working on private schools independent from state educative institutions, discuss how pupils are trained in pedagogical contents with little state intervention or that distance themselves from official narratives. Alice Bombardier and Leila Koochakzadeh focus on the running and teaching methods of schools from the “Alliance israélite universelle” network before the creation of the Iranian national education system. They show that the organisation of these schools was later used as a model to create state schools. Noha Roushdy analyses how Egyptian students of an international school in Cairo handle the “identity subjects” that the State requires them to attend to ensure the development of national culture and belonging among them, and to outweigh risks of acculturation from foreign education. Lamia Mellal examines the life paths and motivations of teachers who made the choice to work in a bilingual school that provides Jewish Israeli and Arab Palestinian students with a mixed education in Arabic and Hebrew, and alternative pedagogical contents, different from official Israeli curricula, especially in history.

9Finally, students and teachers’ experiences in educative settings where the State is partially or totally absent are addressed in three papers. Tarik Hari describes the background and motivations of contract teachers who have recently been massively recruited in state schools in Morocco, while being left to themselves in their teaching practices, with little or no training from the institution. Saïda Belkadi addresses Arabic teaching to deaf children in a specialised charity in Meknes in Morocco. She discusses the pedagogical dilemmas that teachers encounter to follow the official programmes from the Ministry of Education while trying to adapt them to the special needs of these children. Simone Spera focuses on teaching practices and relationships between educators and their learners in an NGO that provides young drop-outs with non-formal basic education in Tripoli, a city neglected and marginalised by the Lebanese State.

Multiple Educative Models in Tension

10Another common thread in this special issue highlights the fact that students and their families are often simultaneously engaged with different educative models, knowledge approaches and pedagogical relationships that coexist and are in tension, not to say in competition, with each other, in educative settings such as state, private and/or international schools, be they religious or secular.

11Existing research generally analyses the creation of national education systems after independence, and the resulting consequences for pre-existing Qur’anic schools, as in Morocco (Eickelman, 1985), or in Mali (Brenner, 2001). Others focus on the role of Islamic education in schools and on tensions between Islamisation and secularisation processes in national education institutions, as Starrett (1998) in Egypt. Besides, an important ethnographic literature exists on religious knowledge transmission methods in Qur’anic schools, for instance in Mauritania (Fortier, 2003), in Upper Egypt (Dupret and Lavergne, 2008), or in Nigeria (Hoechner, 2018). Once again, the papers here, that address school actors’ experiences and strategies towards this multiplicity of models, provide important insights on these topics from within schools.

12New forms of schooling are often experienced as a locus of acculturation in comparison with pre-existing forms of religious teaching. T. Laval shows how tensions between Shiite Qur’anic schools and the new state schools in Najaf hampered daily life for the students of the latter who were often targeted with jeers and sometimes physically attacked in their neighbourhood because they were wearing trousers, seen as a symbol of secularisation and westernisation, or because the knowledge they learnt was at odds with the Qur’an. A. Bombardier and L. Koochakzadeh mention that talmud-torah schools in synagogues coexisted with the “Alliance israélite universelle” schools and describe the forms of pedagogical acculturation the pupils encountered through new teaching methods from France seeking to combine education and entertainment, and using textbooks promoting an urban bourgeois lifestyle between East and West.

13Another prevalent theme concerns pupils who experience two forms of schooling, a religious one and a secular one, and the consequences of this dual education on their cognitive and identity construction. F. Wenzek mentions that a high number of Tanzanian Muslim schoolgirls attended both a state or Christian missionary school and a Qur’anic school. The same applies in Mayotte (Morano) and in Lonato Del Garda (Masi) where pupils attend state schools on weekdays and go to the Qur’anic school on evenings or weekends. N. Roushdy provides another case in which it is compulsory for private international school Muslim students to attend the “identity subjects” (Islamic religion, Arabic and social sciences) imposed by the Egyptian State within their school.

14Findings by N. Roushdy, A. Morano and G. Masi converge as they show that these students are pressured to embody two identity models through this dual schooling. N. Roushdy analyses how students develop an anxious linguistic and cultural identity, as they are stuck between the State’s requirement that they become good Egyptian citizens and good Muslims, and the schooling cultures promoted by the American, British or French programmes implemented by international schools. A. Morano focuses on parents’ roles who expect state schools to train their children to integrate into French society socially and professionally, while they also expect Qur’anic schools (shioni or madrassa) to train them to become good Mahoran and good Muslims. G. Masi compares the differences between literacy learning practices in a state school and a Qur’anic school, and analyses what they induce in the cognitive and identity construction processes for primary school children. He also highlights the pressure of this dual schooling on these pupils who are required by the state school to become good Italians and by the Qur’anic school and their families to become good Muslims.

15Finally, discrepancies between school actors’ expectations and representations towards teaching practices and forms of imported or alternative pedagogies are also a recurrent theme. L. Mellal shows that some teachers in the bilingual school in Israel are ambivalent towards a form of caring pedagogy that seeks to develop empowerment and emancipation among students. S. Spera focuses on educators and their learners’ strategies to build up new forms of school order in a context of social chaos in Tripoli. He notably argues that these young people can be unsettled by a pedagogy promoting self-expression and creativity. S. Belkadi lists the challenges faced by teachers to find an adapted pedagogy to teach Arabic to deaf children. She describes how they negotiate between the different national and international specialised pedagogical approaches on which they received training, and which are not always consistent with each other.

Languages, Diglossia, and Language Ideologies

16The issue of languages is prevalent in the Arab and Muslim worlds, especially relating to the diglossic functioning of Arabic and to the role of foreign languages (Haeri, 2003; Mejdell, 2006; Miller and Caubet, 2010). While there are studies on representations of languages and language practices among young people (see for instance Benítez et al., 2013), few of them focus on Arabic and foreign language teaching practices in classrooms (see Boutieri, 2016 and Pellegrini, 2019, 2020, 2024 in Morocco).

17Even when the language question is not central to the papers of this special issue, it is nevertheless mentioned in most of them, especially because schooling is often bilingual in the studied contexts. T. Hari describes the challenges and reluctance of Moroccan contract teachers towards French in a school system where this language is both taught and used as the language of instruction for sciences, alongside Arabic, the official language. Many non-state and private schools are also bilingual, such as the Yad be Yad school in Israel using Arabic and Hebrew (Mellal), the “Alliance israélite universelle” schools in Iran teaching in French and Persian (Bombardier et Koochakzadeh), and international schools in Egypt using mostly English (sometimes French), Arabic being restricted to the state disciplines mentioned earlier.

18Language teaching practices, especially for Arabic, are also approached following the perspective of diglossia and the language ideologies that are induced by these practices. S. Spera shows how, in the NGO in Tripoli, standard or classical Arabic (fuṣḥa) symbolises school order and norms for educators and learners, even though everyday life Levantine Arabic is pervasive in class interactions. N. Roushdy shows how Cairo international school students are attached to standard Arabic and feel guilty for not mastering it and for neglecting to learn it thoroughly to focus on English which is more decisive for the success of their studies. She nevertheless highlights how they invest colloquial Egyptian Arabic as a major component of their Egyptian identity and culture. S. Belkadi argues that deaf children are confronted to other forms of diglossia, first between the different Arabic sign languages, second between the Arabic and French sign languages that are both in use in teaching. She assesses the consequences that these complex language configurations have on these children’s learning processes and identity construction.

19Overall, identity construction through education is central in the papers of this special issue. School is experienced as a place where a pupil is transformed and becomes – or risks becoming – other in contact with school practices, relationships, and knowledge. It is represented as a locus where an acculturation process occurs that removes a child away from one’s linguistic, cultural, and religious family and social environment. These transformations or this maturing of the self are often experienced as threats to the permanency of identity itself, as shown in the different papers. States invest in school as a means to try to ensure and perpetuate the integrity of national identity and to keep at bay, or contain, distinctive identities that could escape them. Meanwhile, communities perceive school as a State apparatus that threatens the integrity and perpetuation of their singular identity so that they simultaneously invest in other forms of schooling as a counterbalance.

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1 It is often difficult, not to say impossible, to obtain official authorisation to conduct research within schools. Moreover, in numerous Arab and Muslim countries, access to research fields in general has been limited since 2011.

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Chloé Pellegrini, « A Focus on School Experiences in Arab and Muslim Contexts »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 154 | -1, 17-24.

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Chloé Pellegrini, « A Focus on School Experiences in Arab and Muslim Contexts »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 154 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Chloé Pellegrini

Université d’Aix-Marseille, Cnrs, Iremam, Aix-en-Provence, France

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