26th January 2018
Primary age Muslim girls wearing hijab - We must be able to express the broadest spectrum of views freely without censure, intimidation or abuse
St Stephens Primary School in London recently banned pupils under the age of 8 years from wearing the hijab - a decision that was reversed after a coordinated campaign. It is worrying that the reversal of this decision took place after members of staff at the school were intimidated and threatened. Schools should be able to set uniform rules without running the risk of suffering such abuse.
Muslim Women’s Network UK (MWNUK) supports the right of parents to choose what their children wear to school as long the school allows it and the choice of dress complies with the school uniform policy, which in turn should comply with equalities legislation. As the hijab is not mandatory in Islam for pre-pubescent girls, bans such those imposed by the St Clare’s Primary School in Birmingham and St. Stephens Primary School in London were not unlawful.
It follows that MWNUK believes it is important that all parents, teachers and interested parties are able to put forward opinions about school uniform policies provided they are not sexist, racist or Islamophobic. It is essential to uphold the rights of all concerned to debate freely without censure.
It is however very concerning, given the levels of hostility towards the school and some women’s rights activists, that certain groups and individuals appear to be trying to shut down any critique of, or debate about the wearing of hijab by children. To inflame feelings and garner support some are alleging that Muslims are being discriminated against because the ‘patka’ worn by Sikh boys is not banned alongside the hijab. However, we understand that the ‘patka’ is a religious requirement in Sikhism whereas the wearing of the hijab or veil by Muslim females is a matter of religious interpretation, often combined with the relevant cultural and regional traditions. Having said this, almost universally it is recognised that pre-pubescent girls are not required to wear a hijab.
MWNUK Chair, Shaista Gohir said: "Some commentators have argued that banning young girls from wearing the hijab contradicts the key British values of tolerance and the individual liberty of parents. However, no right or liberty is absolute and parents’ rights and liberties must be carefully balanced with the rights of their young children who are not in a position to make independent and informed choices. It is curious that individuals who espouse the right of very young children to ‘make their own choice’ are using bullying tactics and death threats towards head teachers, governors and women’s rights activists to force a change of view on this issue.
Another point of concern is that arguably, telling girls that they have to wear a hijab when they are younger and more susceptible to parental pressure pre-empts problems in the future when these girls may reject the hijab, contrary to parental wishes. Arguments about letting these girls ‘copy mummy’ are unconvincing - if these girls wanted to wear make-up like mummy, would these same parents support their choice? If the justification for empowering girls to ‘dress up’ is indeed legitimate, then will all their choices be supported? If these girls want to dress up in a fairy costume or wear trainers to go to school, would these same parents and their backers force the school to comply? Such dressing up choices would usually be allowed after school, on weekends and in school holidays, so why should the hijab be treated differently?"
Of course as parents we all want to influence our children in certain practices - whether in matters of faith, healthy eating or other human values. Being proud of one’s faith is important and to be commended but insisting on the wearing of hijab by little girls is not the right way to go about advancing the cause of Muslim women and girls living in Britain today.
MWNUK Chair, Shaista Gohir, added: "The rising phenomenon of primary school aged girls wearing the hijab is certainly not an issue to trivialise. In continuing to defend this practice, what messages are being sent to these girls about their hair and body? Are we telling them they are little temptresses if they don’t cover up? And what are we telling the boys? That a girl who does not cover up is fair game for unwanted attention or sexual harassment?"
Under the guise of advancing women’s rights, a minority (of Muslims and non-Muslims) routinely obsesses over Muslim women’s dress, furthering less transparent political agendas. And in these debates, it is usually a small number of men who are the most vocal and emotive of interlocutors, presuming to speak on behalf of Muslim girls and women. However our long experience of working on women’s rights has taught us that such commentators have little genuine understanding of the needs or views of Muslim women and girls.
It is regrettable that an ill-informed OFSTED recommended inspectors to interrogate primary school girls in hijab and that some campaigners have called on the government (via a letter to The Times), to ban the hijab in primary schools completely. Such action has polarised the debate. MWNUK believes that the state should not make hard and fast rules or legislate on banning religious symbols (whether these are religiously mandated or not) as in France. Future debates must allow for the expression of the broadest spectrum of views, free of intimidation and abuse. Consensus lies in local solutions, reached through open debate between schools, parents and children.
For further information contact:
Shaista Gohir OBE (Chair of MWNUK)
0121 236 9000 / 07802 225989 / firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
Faeeza Vaid (ED of MWNUK)
0121 236 9000 / 07535 703567 / firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
Muslim Women’s Network UK (www.mwnuk.co.uk) is the national leading Muslim women’s charity working to improve the social justice and equality for Muslim women and girls.