A girls’ school in the East End of London recently decided to ban the wearing of the jilbab by students. The jilbab is the long coat or dress, which covers the body from the neck to the feet and is worn over the school uniform. As a result of the ban, three students stayed away from school and those wearers of it that continued to attend set up a petition demanding the right to do so.
The school is in Tower Hamlets, which has the largest Bangladeshi population in Britain. The school has a very high proportion of Muslim students on its rolls. Many of the students wear the hijab, the head covering, which has been accepted as part of the school uniform.
According to the school, the uniform policy has been long-standing. The jilbab has never been part of the uniform. They have let the issue lapse over the years, and students have been wearing the jilbab, but the school want to now insist on its policy. They are doing this on the grounds of health and safety and of access to the curriculum. Students have to have access to, e.g. science, without fear of accidents caused due to clothing.
The opposition say that there have been no incidents of injury due to the wearing of the jilbab in school. They say that the school have been insensitive in introducing the ban in the middle of Ramadan, and that they have done this without consulting the local population who will be affected by it.
Actually, the people who were not consulted at all before the implementation of the ban were the staff (some of whom also wear the jilbab!) or the students. The local community, or at least “community leaders”, and the mosque were consulted, apparently. But the first many members of staff knew of it was when TV cameras began conducting interviews on the pavement outside the school, or when they opened the local paper.
Such scant attention to democracy does not bode well for the management of the school. And, indeed, in the face of pressure locally and within the school itself, they seem to have backed off at least until a “working party” has studied the issue.
The ironic thing is that the increased wearing of overtly Islamic dress is due to the increase of fundamentalist influences, some of which pay no attention to democracy at all, especially when it comes to the rights of women.
The language of those who demand the right to cover themselves in order to establish themselves as the property of men is that of the feminist movement of 1970s Britain. They call for “a woman’s right to choose”. This is quite bizarre.
The women’s movement fought for women to be able to walk the streets wearing anything they chose without fear of attack. Men are in control of their sexuality. That they see a woman in a mini-skirt is not sufficient excuse for uncontrolled behaviour. Men do not own women. Women do not cause rape or attack by the clothes that they choose to wear.
All these things were hard won by a women’s movement against all the crap of ages from a male-dominated society. And here we are defending the rights of women to cover themselves up as an expression of their liberation!
Not all of the students in the school are demanding the right to wear the jilbab. The teachers’ union representative in the school stated at a meeting that the girls he spoke to felt pressured; some by family, some by fellow students who argued with them that they were not Islamic enough.
How do we defend the rights of both these sets of students: those who insist on oppressing themselves, and those who insist on not doing so? The rights of teenagers to express themselves, even if we as adults don’t agree with them, is paramount. We defend the right of those students against the ban to organise. But we also defend the rights of those who don’t wish to cover up not to have to.
The school were wrong to try to impose the ban. Not least because it has given ammunition to reactionaries and quasi-reactionaries like members of the SWP-led Respect party, who encourage Muslim girls to cover up. They were also wrong on the grounds of democracy.
However, those students who do not wish to cover up must be given the utmost support in their wishes. A state school should be a place where they can come and be free of the pressures imposed by their religion at home.
By Jean Lane