I am writing in support of the original policy of St Stephen’s School in Newham to stop girls under eight wearing the hijab at school. (The school reversed the policy after a petition campaign). The head, Neena Lall, has received death threats.
Muslim organisations and local councillors have protested, and the chair of the Board of Governors who supported her was been forced to resign. I suspect most of the British left are on the wrong side in this argument. Desperate to prove themselves politically correct, they are abandoning young girls to reactionary restrictions. Yet, in an article in the Evening Standard, Nimco Ali, declaring herself a feminist and a Muslim woman, wrote, “The hijab is meant to be worn to cover women in order to avoid tempting men... It is sexualised clothing. By covering up young girls, the implication is that they are sexual beings. In our attempt not to offend, those who believe this, we are limiting girls freedom.”
The tightening grip of conservative and reactionary religious ideas has gone hand-in-glove with a rise in racism, xenophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. Socialists need to defend minorities, but we can not afford to abandon secularism and support for women, girls, LGBT people and others from Muslim backgrounds who suffer from the reactionary ideas and the institutions of religion and family. Girls from all backgrounds should find in school a secular space which gives them freedom to invent and reinvent themselves.
I know women from many sorts of traditional backgrounds who found some of that at school, and it changed their lives for the better. On the wider question of the hijab, Nimco Ali also makes an interesting observation. “I am the only adult woman in my family who does not wear the Islamic headscarf. And twenty years ago, that statement would have caused people, Muslim and non-Muslim, to ask why the rest were covering rather than why I was not.”
Sadly most of the British guilt-ladened left would welcome this change as progress, a blow against imperialism or whatever. I agree with Nimco Ali. If you would like to know more, I recommend the book Refusing the Veil by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.