Events surrounding the decision to ban the hijab by St Stephen’s primary school have been quite troubling. The headteacher, Neena Lall, justified it on grounds that many of the pupils of Indian and Pakistani immigrant background claimed not to ‘feel British’. Citing reasons such as the hijab hindering movement in PE seems uninspiring to say the least given the high profile success and statement of empowered women, such as Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad or the Egyptian volleyball team. For a primary school that has topped the league tables, it’s quite perplexing that its educators should so crudely pass off cultural, immigrant values as a symbol of religiosity. The school has now seemingly reversed the ban or are making changes to the policy, but this step was never going to be well received in the first place.
From an Islamic perspective, the discussion surrounding hijab for young girls is a storm in a teacup, given that it’s not mandatory prior to puberty. Such a decision by the school comes across as an attack on the freedom of expression of children and the right of parents to influence them during their upbringing. One has to wonder what is so threatening about girls in hijab that schools like St Stephens have to resort to policing their bodies.
Since September last year, the push against hijab in school has been fuelled by a small group of female campaigners within the Muslim community who appear to hold undue influence over the issue. In that month, the Sunday Times published a letter by a group of signatories arguing against the hijab being worn in primary schools under the concern that it was sexual repression of young Muslim girls. This letter prompted an Ofsted recommendation to its inspectors to question primary school girls who wear the hijab, although Ofsted later committed to talking to more representative voices from the British Muslim community.
What was striking about the letter is the way it was framed, creating a spurious link between the experience of young British Muslim girls living in towns and cities like London and Manchester with women in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the oppression of the Yazidis in Syria from violent extremists. This deliberate conflation of disparate global conditions and sociological contexts has done the very thing this group of Muslims complain about – it has politicised the bodies of young Muslim girls in Britain. No attempt at nuance or to present the reality that for many little girls the hijab is no more than little girls imitating their mothers and other women in their lives. As they get older, for some it becomes an expression of their faith whilst others choose not to wear the hijab altogether.
For many women including the mothers of these young children, the hijab is a symbol of their faith as well as a symbol of identity and empowerment with the freedom to choose. The narrative pushed by the campaigners constructs Muslim women into the problem category of ‘oppressed and in need of protection’. Aside from being highly patronising to the many British Muslim women, there is a greater danger of pitting schools against their Muslim populace, and forging an adversarial relationship, far from one of collaboration and co-operation. There is certainly a place for both a robust internal conversation within the British Muslim community and between schools and parents on why young girls wear the hijab but this has to be an open and mature conversation.
In St Stephen’s case, parents say they weren’t consulted which was a breakdown of trust untenable for the chair of governors who did the right thing by resigning from his position. Any parent governor reading this will know the importance of schools talking to parents about a whole host of issues, from cuts to the school budget, to support for children – why then did this conversation about school uniform policy and the hijab not happen? There is an overriding need to foster a trusted relationship, which most schools aspire to, with the communities they serve, and this should not be hijacked by a small group of activists with an agenda.
The underlying issue here is that there are certain voices within the British Muslim community who are using the politics of integration and sexualisation to dominate the narrative against the hijab. Their failure to reconcile Islam with British culture stems from poor experiences with Islam as a faith tradition itself. Strangely, they never blame the ethnic cultures that dominate British Muslims, but the religion itself. It’s clear that those who claim to be standard bearers of secularity and the liberal viewpoint on this issue might speak the language of liberalism, but they undermine the British values of respect and tolerance of differences, which, if they studied the likes of Locke, Voltaire, Mill and others they would realise how respect and tolerance underpins the British expression of secular liberalism itself.
While one’s wearing of the hijab, or lack thereof, shouldn’t prevent anyone from speaking on the topic, claiming to have a deep insight into the issue while not wearing it can only result in gross inaccuracies in its discussion. Their strongly held views on the misrepresentation of the faith should not trump the lived experiences of women and girls who wear the hijab out of choice.
It is also interesting to note that at a time when there are real pressures on school budgets, banning the hijab seems to be headline news. The hijab is not a barrier to education; there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case at all. What is a barrier to education is a lack of investment in our education system and increased pressures on teachers and children particularly in those schools and areas with the most disadvantaged communities. For those activists who feel strongly against the hijab, a failing education system is the issue they should be most worried about.