Muslim women’s dress has again become a talking point in the UK, this time the focus is on girls wearing hijab to primary schools. Girls under the age of 11 who wear a hijab to school will be asked by inspectors whether they are doing it of their own free will or they are being forced by their parents.
Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools and head of Office of Standards in Education known as Ofsted who made the announcement said schools could be in breach of Britain’s equality laws if they only required girls to wear religious garments. But more importantly Spielman claimed that making primary school children wear a hijab could be seen as ‘sexualizing’ them at a young age.
A matter of choice?
“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 sexualization of young girls,” said Spielman. “In seeking to address these concerns inspectors will talk to girls who wear such garments to ascertain why they do so in the school,” she added.
Britain’s school system is split into two with children between the ages of 5 to 11 going to a primary school, and 11-16 going to a secondary school. Going to school up to the age of 16 is compulsory for all children. Uniforms are also compulsory in all schools.
As Britain became a multi-cultural society in the 1980s, schools began to allow concessions for dress demanded by various religious dictates, like allowing girls to cover their legs by wearing trousers instead of skirts, letting Jewish and Sikh boys wear head coverings dictated by their religions and so on. Some schools in areas with large Muslim populations also began to allow girls to wear a hijab as part of the uniform.
The decision to quiz girls about their hijabs came in the wake of a survey carried out by The Sunday Times newspaper which found that 18% of the 800 primary schools in England list hijab as part of their uniform policy, albeit as an optional item.
Some Muslim rights campaigners have gone a step further than Spielman and asked for hijabs to be banned in primary schools arguing that they are usually only worn by young women after they puberty and are not obligatory on primary school girls. “In an Islamic context, the hijab is commonly understood as being for females after they reach the age of puberty. There are very few Muslims who would say a child should be covered,” said Amina Lone, a Muslim women’s rights campaigner and former Labour parliamentary candidate.
Harun Khan, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, hit out at the decision arguing calling it discriminatory. “It sends a clear message to all British women who adopt a hijab that they are second-class citizens, that while they are free to wear the headscarf, the establishment would prefer that they did not,” said Khan.
He also pointed out that many British Muslim women who chose to wear a hijab have done extremely well in education and are breaking glass ceilings in all fields. “It is disappointing that this is becoming policy without even engaging with a diverse set of mainstream Muslim voices,” added Khan.
Interestingly, a bishop of the Church of England has come out in support of allowing primary school girls to wear hijabs if they wanted to. “It may just be a case of young girls simply wanting to look like their mothers,” said Toby Howarth, Bishop of Bradford, a town which has a large Muslim population. “This is a matter of religious identity, not sexualization, and the British policy should be not to make a big deal of it, but simply say that you have to wear the right colour that goes with the school uniform,” added Howarth.