A new hijab controversy erupts in the UK

Nearly one fifth (18%) of 800 state primary schools in 11 regions of England include the hijab as part of the uniform policy, mostly as an optional item.

Questioning attire. Muslim girls, who started to wear the hijab around the age of 8, pose outside London Mosque in west London. (Reuters)

2017/11/26 Issue: 133 Page: 16

The Arab Weekly
Mahmud el-Shafey

London - The hijab has returned to the spotlight in the Unit­ed Kingdom after it was reported that govern­ment school inspectors had been given guidelines to ques­tion primary school girls about why they wore the headscarf.

While many Muslims reacted with anger at the revelations, oth­ers welcomed the government’s intervention, questioning why pri­mary school girls should be wear­ing the hijab at all.

The controversy came after the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Of­sted), which is responsible for inspecting the United Kingdom’s schools and teaching, received an official recommendation for in­spectors to question schoolgirls aged between 5 and 11 on why they wore the religious headscarf.

“While respecting parents’ choice to bring up their children according to their cultural norms, creating an environment where primary school children are ex­pected to wear the hijab could be interpreted as the sexualisation of young girls,” said Amanda Spiel­men, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools.

“In seeking to address these concerns, and in line with our cur­rent practice in terms of assess­ing whether the school promotes equality for their children, inspec­tors will talk to girls who wear such garments to ascertain why they do so in the school.”

The recommendation came fol­lowing a meeting between Spiel­man and campaigners against the hijab in schools.

One activist, Amina Lone, co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation, previously said the hijab has no place in pri­mary schools.

Most mainstream interpreta­tions of Islam hold that the hijab should only be worn after puberty and that young children need not cover their hair.

“Muslim girls as young as five are increasingly veiled and schools are sanctioning this by including it as part of school uniform policies,” a joint open letter to the Sunday Times signed by Lone and other Muslim anti-hijab campaigners said.

The letter warned that Britain “has an abysmal record of protect­ing young Muslim girls, who suffer under the pretext of protecting religious freedoms,” and called on the government not to “turn a blind eye when our schools are be­ing politicised.”

“Countries such as India and Tunisia are fighting back against male-dominated orthodoxies and protecting women’s rights against cultural and ultra-conservative re­ligious practices,” the letter added, calling on the UK government to do the same.

Lone, who spoke out against a 2017 Transport for London cam­paign that depicted a young Mus­lim child wearing the hijab, has warned that young girls wearing the hijab is being normalised.

“A minority of very vocal hard­liners within Muslim communities are pushing a narrow version of what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ Muslim woman… They seek to en­courage increasingly young girls to cover themselves… This is not a tradition mandated by any reli­gious scripture,” she wrote in the Guardian.

A Sunday Times survey revealed that nearly one fifth (18%) of 800 state primary schools in 11 regions of England included the hijab as part of the uniform policy, mostly as an optional item.

However, some local Muslim groups have criticised the govern­ment intervention, seeing it as part of a broader campaign to restrict religious freedoms in schools.

A recent court order made it il­legal to segregate girls and boys at the primary school level — some­thing that a number of Muslim schools in the United Kingdom do.

“It is deeply worrying that Of­sted has announced it will be spe­cifically targeting and quizzing young Muslim girls who choose to wear the headscarf. It sends a clear message to all British women who adopt this that they are second-class citizens, that while they are free to wear the headscarf, the es­tablishment would prefer they do not,” said Harun Khan, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain.

“One can only hope that this wrong-headed approach will be swiftly reversed, and the reason­able and sincere choices of young children and their parents — even if they are Muslim — will not be dismissed so easily.”

Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.

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