by Kate Hollinshead: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Banning the hijab will help school girls integrate into British society and limit the Islamisation process.”
“Banning the hijab will undermine the British Values of individual liberty and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.”
“Banning the hijab will ensure that girls are not sexualised at a young age.”
“Banning the hijab will undermine the right to practice religion and the true cause of gender equality.”
This is just a snapshot of the arguments that have surrounded St Stephen’s Primary School’s decision to ban the headscarf for Muslim children under the age of 8. The headteacher told The Sunday Times that the school took the decision in order to help children to integrate into British society (The Independent, 2018). This was followed up by a social media post from one of the school’s governors who claimed that he was trying to ‘limit the Islamisation process, and turn these beautiful children into modern, British citizens’ (The Independent, 2018). Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman publicly backed the headteacher’s decision, saying that ‘schools must have the right to set school uniform policies as they see fit in order to promote cohesion’ (The Guardian, 2018)
Since then, a petition against the ban gained over 19,000 signatures, the ban has been overturned by the school, the governor has resigned, and many public figures have come out in favour or against the banning of the hijab.
So, let us turn to the many arguments which have been aired during the last few months of discussion about the hijab in schools.
The school’s arguments for the ban suggest that there is somehow a conflict, an incompatibility, between being a modern, British citizen and wearing a hijab, that there is an ‘Islamisation process’ happening in Britain and that school children wearing a hijab is a sign that ‘Islam is taking over’. Integration is defined as a process whereby the existing culture of a country is added to and therefore society is transformed and enhanced (Cardiff University). However, the Headteacher’s idea of integration sounds more like assimilation; a loss of cultural, religious and ethnic identity and an expectation of conformity to the norms of the majority (Cardiff University). Promoting cohesion is positive and has been a statutory duty for schools since 2007, however banning the hijab is not about ‘the act of forming a united whole’, it is instead the act of forcing people to become homogenous in the hope that they will be united.
The petition to reverse the hijab ban argued that it should be overturned, “so that individuality, personal choice, heritage, culture and expression remain free and unregulated within the education system” (change.org, 2018).
Additionally, as Zubaida Haque of the Runnymede Trust has rightly pointed out, the stance taken by the school undermines the ‘British values’ of individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, that Ofsted are keen to ensure schools are promoting throughout their practice (TES, 2018). In addition, the school’s original arguments contravene the Public Sector Equality Duty of The Equality Act 2010, which requires that all schools foster good relations between pupils and that discrimination because of religion or belief is eliminated.
It is also important to point out that the presence of Islam in Britain is not new. Britain has been benefiting from the inventions of Muslims since as far back as the 8th century, the first mosque in Britain was opened in 1889, and it is estimated that 2.5 million Muslims fought with the allied forces in the first World War (muslimmuseum.org.uk). Britain has not suddenly become ‘Islamised.’
Amina Lone, co-founder of the Social Action and Research Foundation, used Twitter to suggest that a reversal of the ban was a step in ‘promoting religious extremism, mob rule and refusing to give Muslim young girls equal gender equality rights’ (The Independent, 2018). In addition, Amanda Spielman has suggested that “creating an environment where primary school children are expected to wear the hijab could be interpreted as sexualisation of young girls” (The Guardian, 2018). Many commentators have backed this argument, claiming that banning the hijab is about promoting gender equality. The rallying cry for gender equality is often only made by some people as a means to argue against a religion or a minority’s freedoms; these are the same people who often fall silent when there is media attention on other aspects of girls’ and women’s rights, such as the prevalence of sexual harassment of girls or everyday sexism.
Essentially, gender equality is not achieved by limiting female agency and the ability for girls to make a choice.
With regards to the hijab sexualising school girls, there is no evidence that claims girls who where the hijab are affected negatively personally and intellectually (The Independent, 2018). Women and girls wear the hijab for individualised and varying reasons, not just the more traditional reason of modesty. Some girls wear it to express their identity, trial with their appearance or because they want to look like their mother (The Independent, 2018). There is little evidence that the school at the centre of this debate consulted with their community about the reasons why some Muslim girls were wearing hijabs and how, if at all, this is linked to safeguarding issues.
Indeed, these reasons for girls wearing hijabs are neither associated with the sexualisation of young girls nor the promotion of religious extremism as Lone and Spielman have claimed. Spielman suggested that in worst case scenarios religious belief is being used in some schools ‘to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology’ (The Guardian, 2018). This has been met with criticism from those who feel that discussion of Islam and Muslims is all too often associated with extremism. Commentators have run the risk of conflating Conservative Islam with ‘extremist ideology’ which, according to journalist Samira Shackle ‘does not serve the women and girls supposedly being protected’ and only serves to highlight profound discomfort with difference (The Guardian, 2018).
Discomfort with difference is perhaps at the heart of this furore. Either consciously or unconsciously, value judgements are often placed on differences in parenting styles, with the view that there is a ‘right way to parent’. As Baldock suggests, ‘there is still a strong tendency to see what happens in middle-class Anglo-Saxon society as natural and other forms of behaviour as oddities’ (Baldock, 2010:3). However, there are lots of different ways to raise children and as long as children are happy, healthy or safe, one way of parenting should not be lauded over another. Banning difference because it is uncomfortable does nothing to promote the British Values of mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.
And finally, let me address Amina Lone’s issue of ‘mob rule’, which is exactly the ‘British Value’ of democracy that schools are expected to promote. Petitioning is exercising a democratic right. Holding authorities to account is absolutely right.
Are some voices allowed, while others must go unheard?
At a conference that I attended a couple of weeks ago, the facilitators held an impromptu debate about whether the school was right to implement the ban. What struck me the most during this debate, was the make-up of the room – only one visibly Muslim delegate, who stayed quiet; the rest, including me, were non-Muslim. I found it grotesque, almost imperialist, that a group like this could debate about which rights and freedoms should be bestowed upon others in society. This mirrors the experiences of the parents and carers at the school. Had the school consulted with them prior to imposing the rule, so that they could exercise their democratic right and combat any myths about the hijab, all voices in the debate could have been heard, rather than just those few at the top. Instead, omitting parents’ views seemed to say something about the way some people perceive Muslim parents, that they are perhaps part of the cause of the ‘problem’ and should have ‘the right way to parent’ imposed on them.
The school has asked for clearer guidance on pupils wearing the hijab at school, and the DfE has responded by highlighting their guidance of school uniform and schools’ compliance with the Equality Act 2010. However, it is important that any decisions made by those in charge, which impact on the lives of the young people in their care, are consulted upon widely, based in evidence, are devoid of personal bias and prejudice, have no hidden agendas and are conducive to the pupils learning, safety and inclusivity.