The Hijab: Defending Free Choice – No to Islamophobia!

Stand Up To Racism condemns recent statements in support of headscarf bans in primary schools by the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman. We likewise condemn the threat to judge schools as “inadequate” should they take account of parents’ wishes in allowing a headscarf option.

It is totally unprecedented for a modern state institution to take steps against a specific religious group in this way. Such measures can only fuel anti-Muslim prejudice and sow divisions in our schools and communities. We uphold the right of Muslim women and girls to wear the headscarf and oppose any attempt to judge schools on the basis of what their pupils wear.

Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism have become increasingly pervasive across society, permeating our political culture and state institutions. Anti-Muslim and racist reporting has become a mainstay of news coverage.

Politicians, government officials and the media have promoted a narrative of “self-segregating” Muslim communities, subscribing to an “alien” culture. Such mainstream prejudice has fuelled rising hate crime against Muslims and reinforced institutional discrimination in employment and education. It has also provided legitimacy to the far-right.

The statements and measures announced by Amanda Spielman mark an escalating narrative. The effect can only be to reinforce an anti-Muslim political culture in society, and to institutionalise Islamophobia and racism in our schools and public sector.

The demonisation of the headscarf, veil and robe has consequences. Muslim women constitute the majority of victims of violent anti-Muslim hate crime and those wearing the headscarf and other forms of covering are disproportionately targeted. The majority of perpetrators are white and male. These attacks are motivated by misogyny and racism.

A protest against Ofsted’s decision in Birmingham

The recent ban on the hijab at St Stephen’s Primary school in the London Borough of Newham threatened to divide parents, pupils and the community. It is to be welcomed that the school withdrew the ban after representation from parents and community and a school meeting at which 150 parents attended.

However, Amanda Spielman has portrayed St Stephen’s parents who have exercised their democratic right to a voice as “extremists”, though many of their children did not wear a headscarf.

Arguments

Arguments advanced in defence of a headscarf ban claim to have the interests of equality and young children at heart. We believe these to be profoundly mistaken. In some cases they are used to cynically advance an Islamophobic agenda. It is claimed a ban is aimed only at very young children but many of those campaigning for a ban openly support its extension. In any event it has far wider consequences.

The headscarf/hijab is worn by individual women and girls for a wide range of reasons. It can be worn as a display of culture; a sign of faith; a perception of appropriate female dress or as a symbol of empowerment, resistance and pride; it can be worn by young women as a reaction against “raunch” culture and commodification of sexuality. The headscarf is not the only form of women’s dress or fashion for which this holds true.

It is true that parents influence how a child is dressed, however this is generally true of young children. It does not excuse singling out Muslim families nor does such influence preclude choices by children – as any parent knows.

It is wrong therefore to insist that the headscarf implies a “sexualisation” of young girls or to compare it to young girls wearing lipstick or high heels. If this were the case the same argument would apply to wearing skirt or dress. The only difference is the latter is associated with western culture.

Such arguments offer dangerous concessions to racism. It is notable that there has been no reference to the banning of the Sikh Joora or top-knot, or the Jewish kippah.

It is argued there is nothing in Islamic faith that prescribes the wearing of the hijab or other forms of dress. This argument was used by antisemites in passing restrictions on Jewish dress in the past and by colonial regimes in the Middle East and North Africa.

Those who profess faith interpret forms of religious practice differently. In Judaism, Orthodox and reform Jews have different views on appropriate dress, head coverings and hair for children, women and men; this is true for Christianity, Sikhism and other faiths.

The decision of any woman or girl to wear or not to wear a headscarf is fundamentally an issue of choice. It has long been a tenet of the women’s movement that state institutions have no right to infringe on a woman’s freedom of choice, including dress.

School leaders, governors and local authority leaders should take a stand.

A call for a headscarf/hijab ban presents Muslim women and girls as “alien”, divorced from mainstream society; as submissive and oppressed on one hand, and a threat on the other. They portray Muslim men as predators, a racist stereotype that has been used against Jews and black people. They reinforce racist notions of superior values and culture. Such calls demonise the entire Muslim community.

The decision to single out Muslim children is unacceptable. No schoolchild should be targeted for action on the basis of their race, religion or background.