Istanbul middle school pressures students into religious conformity

The administration of the İsmail Tarman Imam Hatip Middle School pressures students into religious conformity, parents of the central Istanbul school claim. One parent, whose daughter is Christian, is forced to attend an Islam-focused religion class. Another parent says that teachers tell female students to avoid laughing, dressing "chic" and social media.

Ferhat Yaşar / Duvar

The administration of the İsmail Tarman Imam Hatip Middle School in central Istanbul has been exerting religious pressure on its students, their parents said.

Though the school was to be transformed into an Imam Hatip school - a category of secondary educational institutions founded to train imams - an administrative ruling in 2016 reversed this process. The school's administration has been operating against this ruling.

Parents carry a banner that reads "Don't tranform İsmail Tarman Middle School into an Imam Hatip!" March 23, 2017. (Photo Credit: İleri Haber)

The daughter of Ümit Aslan, a christian, has been forced to attend religious classes that focus almost exclusively on Islam, though she had officially been exempted from it.

"She's not tested on the material, but she's still forced to attend the class. My daughter's taken a dislike to religion," Aslan said.

Another parent noted that teachers at the school tell female students to avoid dressing "chic", to avoid laughing and to close down their social media accounts.

'How would we look out for her if we allowed her to leave the classroom?'

According to Aslan, the school's teachers base their education on superstitions, adding that her daughter has developed a resentment against religion after having been forced to attend the classes.

"When I asked why [my daughter was being forced to attend the class], they said 'Your child is our responsibility. How would we look out for her if we allowed her to leave the classroom?'" Aslan said.

'This is not an option, it's an imposition'

Counselors at the Imam Hatip school told some parents that teaching religion to kids of middle school age, between 11 and 15, is not " pedagogically correct."

"They told us 'It wasn't right in terms of abstraction,'" Becerik said, conveying a counselor's comment that teaching religion at middle school age kids could hinder with the developmental understanding of abstract concepts.

Parents speak in front of İsmail Tarman Imam Hatip Middle School March 4, 2019. (Photo Credit: Evrensel Daily)

Almost all parents of the school, 973 of 1,100, signed a petition in 2016 that refuted the transformation of the middle school into an Imam Hatip.

Since then, they have been protesting the decision every weekend.

"It's not like we're against the Imam Hatip institution. There should be one in the district and whoever wishes to should attend. But this is not an option [at Ismail Tarman], it's an imposition," Becerik said.

'The principal didn't even know about it'

The parents suddenly found out about the transformation of the school into an Imam Hatip on May 30, 2016, said parent Mengü Bozkırdoğan. "The principal didn't even know about it," he added.

The parents collected signatures for the reversal of the transformation, with 973 parents out of the 1,100 signing the petition. A neighborhood-wide petition received 7,000 signatures.

'The school has lost its spirit'

There have been parliamentary questions presented about the issue and the parents have a ruling from the Fourth Istanbul Administrative Court that approves the reversal of the school's transformation into an Imam Hatip institution.

The transformation of the school seems to have lowered the demand for it, says Bozkırdoğan, adding that class sizes have shrunk despite the fact that location proximity isn't a necessity for enrollment.

"This school used to have very high success rates. Now the students will start saying things like 'Your mom will go to hell because she wears short sleeves.' The school has lost its spirit," Bozkırdoğan said.