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Analysis, Current Affairs

The hijab at primary school is a human rights issue, not a religious one

I’ve hesitated to write this piece. I can only imagine how sick women, and Muslim women especially, are of having their clothing and bodies discussed at length, especially by men. Sometime a few years ago I made a decision not to write about hijabs and headscarves, and have stuck to it by and large. I’ve decided however to wade into the recent debate about hijab at primary school and mansplain like the best of them because there’s a particular issue that I feel has been left off the table in the whole discussion.

Like the “harem”, the hijab has now been sexualised in the imagination of the West.

A bit of context

In September of last year, an open letter was published in The Times (and elsewhere) calling the government to intervene in the wearing of the headscarf by young girls in primary schools. It was co-signed by women’s rights campaigners (Amina Lone, Gina Khan, Zehra Zaidi, Aisha Ali Khan, Henna Rai, Iram Ramzan, Lejla Kuric, Sara Khan, Yasmin Rehman, Afsana Lachaux, Tehmina Kazi) and also Stephan Evans from the Nationalist Secular Society (because why not?).

Since then, Ofsted have announced they will be quizzing young girls on why they wear the hijab. There are some powerful reactions to this, including the Muslim Council of Britain publishing the views of 100 Muslim women on the topic and a poem by “The Brown Hijabi” Suhaiymah (below).

There is a particular take that I want to ensure is included in the discussion: the human right element.



The human right element

This debate should not be a debate about choice, which is fallacious ground. Most children don’t have a significant degree of agency in their lives about anything, putting the bar of “choosing” the hijab for young Muslim girls is untenable.

This debate should also not be about theology. It doesn’t matter whether the Islamic tradition teaches that the hijab should be worn post-puberty.

This debate is squarely about human rights. Does the state have a right to interfere in the decisions parents make about their children’s clothing? The principles of human rights are to protect the individual and communities from the authoritarian intrusion by the state.

The women’s rights campaigners (and uh… Stephan Evans) who feel young children should not wear the hijab at a primary school have not yet made the case that the hijab justifies a safeguarding issue that requires government intervention. Instead, and it pains me to say this, they shamefully relied upon a dominant narrative of Muslim-women-needing-saving (see Lila Abu-Lughod’s book) to invite draconian government behaviour to a minority religious community.

In fact, if you step back and look at this from the perspective of power, it’s chilling. On the one hand, you have the government, the most powerful institution in the country. On the other hand, you have those facing the “questioning” — young Muslims girls, who are among the most disempowered group possible. They are disempowered on account of being a religious minority, on account of being female, and on account of being children.

The question I would put to the campaigners who raised this issue is why they did not try civil society approaches first — to contact headteachers, to speak to parents directly, to ask Muslim scholars to address the issue with their congregations. This is, after all, a question about community ethics and values. Instead, the campaigners chose a deeply illiberal approach, and a dangerous one too.

The open letter claims that the “hijab” sexualises. The hijab is many different things to many different people. For some, an act of worship, for others, a statement of identity, and no doubt for other’s still, it is an expression of sexual modesty. This diversity and disagreement is essential and inevitable, as Anthony Cohen described, in “the symbolic construction of community”.

Instead, the campaigners have sought to impose their singular interpretation of the hijab as a sexual piece of clothing onto others through government, and then sought to impose their preferences through government. In doing so, they have replaced parents with the state as those primarily responsible for the upbringing of Muslim children. It is barely a step away from Ukip’s policy of forced vaginal examinations for Muslim girls in Britain.

This is not a healthy direction for society to be heading, and for those like myself who are disturbed by this trend need to rally behind Human Rights legislation — itself under threat — to undo this damage.


by Abdul-Azim Ahmed, PhD in religion and sociology. Editor of @OnReligionMag www.OnReligion.co.uk.

This article was originally published here.

2 Comments

  1. Yes, it’s really bad that the kuffir have no sense of shame and allow their women and especially children to wear immodest clothing with no veiling. If only kuffar girls wore modest clothing then there would have been no so called ‘grooming’ in Rotherham and Muslim men would have not succumbed to being tempted by these uncovered whores.

  2. Ofsted accused of Islamophobia over hijab questioning in Primary Schools and the toilet papers issue in a Muslim school

    Of all the problems that lie in the British education system: poverty, socio- economic inequality, a system that feeds the preferences of certain classes, overworked and underpaid teachers, tick box exercises that schools implement just to impress Ofsted, the disparity that widens between resources available in the North and South, Amanda Spielman is worried about the Hijab! I’m speechless! I’m extremely disappointed that she’s used the term sexualisation in the wrong context. However, I’m not surprised at that; a few years ago a head of a school had to send Ofsted an email about the number of spelling and punctuation errors on an Ofsted report that had been published. That’s what Spielman should be worried about; Ofsted’s credibility. Not hijabs! What sort of message are we giving to young people? We teach and embrace unity in the classroom, break down barriers that the media has corrupted young minds with, and now we have Ofsted making things worse. On a positive note, this will bring young Muslim women together and together we will see lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs, Headteachers, engineers all of whom wear a headscarf!

    I have a friend who has been teaching in a state school with majority of Muslim children and we discussed this issue. One thing that stood out for me was an observation that she made. She said that she realised girls wearing the hijab were doing better academically than girls that weren’t, and they were also better disciplined. Statistically girls were doing much better than the boys at the school, but it was the girls that wore the hijab that were getting the highest marks. It’s something interesting that we all have to try and understand.

    Islam is a religion of modesty, in the way we talk, dress, interact, hold ourselves etc. We wear the headscarf only as part of retaining that modesty. It is a sign of our faith; that we submit to God, and to call this ‘sexualising of young girls’ is outrageous and disrespectful of our belief. To wear short skirts and crap tops is not seen as sexualising young girls but to cover yourself is? It seems like something bigger is at play.

    I believe young girls in primary schools even young as 4 years old, have a tendency to copy their mums, elder sisters or just see other friends wearing the hijab. Girls at this age normally like to copy people they like, the way they would if someone wear a jewellery or shoes, its like a trend. I believe it is a normal behaviour of a young child who like to wear hijab. They can take it off anytime, there is no restrictions and due to this freedom is why children keep putting hijab back on.

    Ofsted I understand is an organisation that inspects schools regarding teaching and learning and they also look at safeguarding too. With media giving wrong interpretation of Islam, I feel Ofsted is being sucked in the propaganda. I am aware they have to protect children welfare, however they are not putting this in context. Most parents including myself want their daughters to wear hijab but at certain age, as parents we struggle when it is the right time, without making child feel we are hindering their personality. Ofsted needs to realise the difference when a child not taking part in school activities…it does not mean it because she is wearing a hijab! It could be numerous of reasons I.e. not liking the activity, timings, circumstances at home changes so a cannot accommodate etc.

    Young girls wear the headscarf a symbol of submission to God. A symbol of piety and modesty. Islam does not require a girl to wear the hijab until she attains the age of puberty however some girls choose to wear it before because they would like to practice wearing it. They may also choose to wear it because their older sisters/mother/aunties wear it and because they look up to them. Just as many young girls have an interest in makeup or dressing in a particular way because of their family members and role models that they look up to.

    Islam teaches the importance of modesty and how Muslim women should wear the headscarf (hijab) when they reach the age of puberty. It is well within the rights of Muslim parents to teach their girls at a younger age about this concept in Islam. Furthermore some younger Muslim girls do admire and long to wear the hijab earlier as means of expressing their modesty and wanting to please God. As a result, their parents may accordingly encourage their interest in wearing the headscarf earlier.

    I think the singling out of young Muslim girls by Ofsted and quizzing them is really invasive and inappropriate. Young Muslims are already aware of being portrayed as ‘the other’ in the media and this will further deepen the divide and make them feel targeted. A school should have no right to separate a group of children and question them for wearing a religious garment. I think the claim that hijab could be interpreted as sexualisation of young girls is disgusting and perverted.

    Why should Ofsted of all boards interview these young girls? Would it not be better that teachers have a chat with parents if they have reason to believe a young girl is observing the hijab against her will? Schools should absolutely not ban young children from wearing a headscarf. It is an expression of their religious beliefs.

    Ofsted accused of Islamophobia over hijab questioning in primary schools. The schools watchdog Ofsted has been voted UK Islamophobe of the Year. Ofsted won the dubious accolade at a ceremony organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London on Sunday evening.

    Many in the Muslim community feel that Ofsted has targeted Muslim children over the past few years. Several high-performing schools in Birmingham were put in Special Measures by Ofsted and Muslim educationalists were forced out of their jobs following the “Trojan Horse” affair, which was later largely discredited.

    A Muslim girls’ school in Stoke-on-Trent has been rated “inadequate” by Ofsted after inspectors discovered that pupils were not provided with toilet paper due to “cultural reasons”.

    Staff at the fee-paying Park Avenue Girls’ High School said that toilet paper was available from the school office, but because most of the students were Asian, they preferred to wash rather than wipe. The school, which was visited by inspectors in October, and was rated “inadequate”, with the report identifying a “range of concerns”, including safeguarding problems and the discovery of “sectarian material” on the premises. Let pupils use loo paper!! Another reason for colonialists to undermine Islamic values. So this was the only thing Ofsted could find ? Muslims prefer water to papers.

    The Ofsted report stated: “At the time of the inspection, it was not the school’s common practice to provide soap for pupils’ hand-washing, toilet roll in the toilets or suitable drinking water”. But headteacher, Abdul Ghafoor Salloo, defended the policy, insisting the school catered for the cultural needs of the pupils. Using tissue paper is very much hygienic…for it is used before and after water… It is very much Islamic…nothing absolutely wrong with it…so long as one uses water afterwards for a thorough cleansing… Put some toilet paper in, you need it still to take off excess, use water and dry later with the toilet paper.And yes what a stupid thing for them to say ‘inadequate’. Lets face it these days its Ofsted that is inadequate. OFSTED is ‘inadequate’ for only using toilet paper – dirty buggers.

    He said: “The children they do use the toilets and traditionally, because we are Asian, we wash, not only wipe. There are facilities for pupils to clean themselves.” But despite the various problems inspectors noted that the relationships between staff and pupils were strong and this had a positive impact on pupils’ behaviour. They added: “Pupils’ behaviour is good. They follow instructions willingly and are well behaved at all times while on the school premises.”

    Muslims are obliged to wash their private parts with water and not just with tissues. A Muslim is obliged to wash his face, hands, feet,mouth and nose five times a day for prayers. There are hundreds of state and church schools where Muslim children are in majority. Not a single school has facilities for washing in the toilets. Muslim children are forced to use just tissues. Ofsted never criticised such schools for not providing this facility for the Muslim children. If a Muslim school is rated inadequate for not proving toilet tissues than what about state and church schools for not providing water for washing? What gives OFSTED the right, or indeed any Brits, to preach to minority groups about how they should live their lives. This is a cosmopolitan country, the Muslim community have the right to educate their children how they choose. What has being British got to do with your religious belief? In Britain there are Hindus Sikhs pagans Jews Buddhists atheist Zoroastrians Rasta’s and many more should they all change their religious beliefs because they are British? Studying the Qur’an will certainly help towards these children becoming fully integrated citizens of the UK.

    The former head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, criticised the wearing of the veil in schools and the current chief, Amanda Spielman, has said that Muslim girls will be questioned by inspectors about why they wear the hijab.

    Ofsted’s recommendation for inspectors to question Muslim primary school girls if they are wearing a hijab has been condemned as “kneejerk, discriminatory and institutionally racist” by more than 1,000 teachers, academics and faith leaders.

    The schools inspectorate announced this month that the policy was designed to tackle situations in which wearing a hijab “could be interpreted as sexualisation” of girls as young as four or five, when most Islamic teaching requires headdress for girls only at the onset of puberty. Muslim girls who wear the hijab to primary school will be asked why they wear it by inspectors. The reasons given will then be recorded in school reports, amid concerns girls are being forced to wear the headscarf by their parents. Imagine being questioned about why you dress the way your parents tell you at 8 years of age!? What do you say? “Sorry, I’ll tell them they are wrong”? Looks like Ofsted are now so busy with combating Islam that they will have no time to deal with education? The problem is, before they start the quizzing, they’re making public exactly what the girls should get prepared to reply (by their family) to be allowed to keep the hijab. With all the time to rehearse. Any child asked by an inspector why she’s covering her hair should reply.. ‘its a free country I can wear what I want”!! We do not need inspectors chasing Muslims just because we hate them. Looks like Ofsted are now so busy with combating Islam that they will have no time to deal with education?

    But the move has been criticised as a “dangerous” decision that risked “reinforcing an anti-Muslim political culture in which Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism has been institutionalised in schools and across the public sector”.

    Why is it that we always have these conversations about girls? I never read articles about what boys should or should not wear. I have never read articles about what boys should be allowed to do, only girls. Maybe that is more the issue. Why? It would only be a good idea if you planned to make the families feel so unwelcome that they end up removing their children to be educated at home. But don’t then be surprised at the number of home educated Muslim children rising. Maybe that’s the overall agenda to make Muslims as outcasts?

    A letter signed by 1,136 teachers, academics and faith leaders said: “It is a kneejerk, discriminatory and institutionally racist response that will violate civil liberties and create a climate of fear and mistrust in schools, and must be retracted immediately.”

    Ofsted’s announcement in the form of a recommendation to inspectors rather than an update to the inspectorate’s official handbook was the latest of a string of requirements issued after the “Trojan horse” affair in Birmingham in 2014, which provoked controversy over fears of Islamist influence in state schools.

    Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted and chief inspector of schools, said she respected parents’ choice to bring up their children according to their cultural norms, but wanted to tackle situations “where primary school children are expected to wear the hijab [that] could be interpreted as sexualisation of young girls”. The opposite to hijab wearing is the display of highly sexualised forms of many western women. Western men get to enjoy this without thinking they are entitled to help themselves to every woman wearing a skirt up to her bumcheeks. The bottom line (pun intended) gents, is you can look but not touch. If you are offended, look away you control freak prude.

    Today’s head of Ofsted has no background in education. She was forced upon the inspectorate by the Minister against the advice of those appointed to oversee such appointments. She has an agenda to make a splash and get out before that splash lands back on her. Pandering to radicals, in this case feminists, humanists and the like is all se is up to. She has not got the background or experience to make effective positive changes to education, so she has taken the easy way out, and politicised Ofsted.

    Did the NSS also ask for Sikh boys to be quizzed about their turbans and Jewish children for their religious headgear (skull caps or wigs)? If not why are Muslims being exclusively targeted again. I hope they’re also going to quiz Sikh boys who cover their hair..? No, thought not. Just pick on the girls.
    Start by quizzing children if they are abused by parent who are alcoholics start by protecting children who are left homeless start by actually doing something usefully instead of targeting Muslims for wearing a religious symbol. Start by quizzing all children why they follow a religion after all they are smart in off to decide for themself. Will they ask Jewish kids if they are wearing their outfits voluntarily?

    Freedom of religion is imperial . One can choose what to believe in an practise it , it’s not the government’ job to dictate what you should eat, how you should dress ,when you should pray ..it only has the power to coerce it’ civilians but it should just focusing on providing services and infrastructure and education and so on. So they need to send inspectors instead of assuming that it’s the parents brainwashing the kids. Interesting. Maybe they expect to find some 7 years old girls who will give them a detailed report of all the faiths they thoroughly researched before choosing Islam because it’s the one they believe provides the answers to all their existential and philosophical questions.

    Parents are free to teach their children what they want as long as it’ not harming them physically or mentally. Its called education not force. I guess every parent has the right to educate their child into doing something which they believe is good (as long as its not a crime etc). It’s the parents that they should be questioning, not the children. No good asking the girls. If they are made to wear it, they will be made to say they aren’t, since that’s what the Inspectors want to hear. Everybody knows who the Inspectors spoke to.

    You are/will be brainwashing your believes to your future children on what to do and what not. If my daughter from a young age is willing to wear the hijab I will not oppose it and make her understand that it is empowering her when she reaches puberty and she will be ready for it. When you live in a over sexualised society I believe such precaution is important. The child will progress just as much as the kids not wearing a headscarf in what sense does it make them weaker…apart of you sexualising the children when the Muslim parent prepares them for the real life and teaches what’s right or wrong . Who are you to tell ?

    Where is the freedom of religion? Can she not express her identity at young age. Surely preparation makes one better . I do not want my children to be brainwashed by half naked girls instead I’ll teach her what’s right or wrong and that is my duty not yours not the government. Asking little girls why they wear a headscarf is silly. It is forced on them in one way or another, through dictate by parents, training, social pressure.

    The letter, written by Nadine El-Enany, a senior law lecturer at Birkbeck Law School, University of London, Waqas Tufail, a senior lecturer in criminology at Leeds Beckett University, and Shereen Fernandez, a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, said: “We, the undersigned, ask that Ofsted immediately retract its instruction to inspectors to question primary school children wearing the hijab.

    “We find the decision to single out Muslim children for questioning unacceptable, and insist that no school children be targeted for action on the basis of their race, religion or background.

    “While a wider conversation about the sexualisation of girls in Britain’s culture and economy is welcome, the singling out of Muslim children for investigation is unacceptable.

    “The message the Ofsted decision sends to Muslim women is that the way they choose to dress and the decisions they make in raising their children are subject to a level of scrutiny different to that applied to non-Muslim parents.

    “Further, the Ofsted decision reduces the hijab to a symbol of sexualisation and ignores other interpretations ranging from a display of faith to a symbol of empowerment and resistance. Constructing women and children who wear the hijab as being either sexualised or repressed is both reductive and racist in its reproduction of colonial and Orientalist tropes about them.”

    I believe the head scarf or hijab, covering of certain parts of the body is our right as Muslim’s. It has been revealed in the Quran that we should do so, and also this was the example given to us by the prophet Mohamed’s wives or women in Islam e.g Khadija who was a successful business women.

    We feel free and independent from sexualisation due to wearing the hijab and dressing modestly. Before Islam I use to think I’m free to wear short skirts bikini’s it’s a free world but in reality I was miserable always trying to put on make up, dress to keep up with fashion and be revealing my body to the public which only bought about negative attention.

    I feel liberated after wearing hijab. I don’t have to conform too pretence or show my body to everyone. I feel blessed that I am a Muslim and no one forces me to wear it I’m not married so my husband isn’t forcing me. My daughter if she would like to wear it then I would be very proud of her as she is doing an act of worship by wearing it, as obeying the commend of Allah and being obedient to him is a part of being Muslim.

    There is no compulsion in lslam and most women and female children I know are not forced to wear it in fact the opposite they look up to the women who wear it and then decide for themselves to. In hijab we do not get negative or sexist comments made to us, if anything the inspectors should be questioning those schools who make young girls dress in mini skirts and question those girls about the skirts and sexualisation. If we are living in a free society where Sikhs are allowed to wear peg and turbans and have small daggers, Hindus are allowed to send their children with red dots on their foreheads, Christians can wear crucifixes around their necks if they wish too then why is it always the Muslim religion that has to answer? Quite simply if Muslim girls shouldn’t be allowed to wear headscarf in schools then all of the above should not be allowed either. Maybe the same question can be asked to Sikh children who cover, is that to do with sexualisation also?

    Hijab is a part of our religion and identity it liberates us, we don’t feel forced, sexualised or oppressed in fact I can’t wait to go shopping to pick out new ones with my friends and I’m sure that’s what these girls think too.

    Hijab is more than just a head covering. When a girl chooses to wear the hijab, she is choosing to represent Islam. To behave with dignity, treat others with respect, uphold the highest mannerisms, and be a positive influence within society. She is also asking others to treat her with respect, look past her appearance and value her inner characteristics. For members of Ofsted to claim ‘the hijab can be interrupted as the sexualisation of young girls’ is outrageous and a clear reflection of their ignorance.

    If Ofsted start singling out young Muslim girls, they are not only sending the message that these girls do not belong but are also teaching other students that it is ok to treat them differently and not accept them.

    The school environment has a substantial influence on the development of our future society and should be a safe place where all children are given the opportunity to flourish. Banning the hijab from schools would only teach the next generation that it is ok to be intolerant and disrespectful towards people who share different views. Which will cause irreparable isolation and resentment.

    We live in a multicultural society and have rights regardless of being from the ethnic minority especially Muslim for my girls it is their identity a fashion statement freedom of choice and never forced upon them.

    Everyone’s religious beliefs should be respected and valued I feel Ofsted are discriminating against a small minority of Muslims extremely bias will they ban the turban next and I hope this helps put a stop towards this ideology of discriminating against Muslims.
    IA
    http://www.londonschoolofislamics.org.uk

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