Banning hijab in schools

Submitted by AWL on 18 September, 2019 - 10:17 Author: David Pendletone

This article was part of a debate we had earlier this year. Our 2020 conference voted to reject this call for the ban on the hijab in schools. Our 2004 policy- to oppose all calls for bans on the hijab - stands. The full debate can be found here.

I will be moving a motion for a ban on the hijab in schools up to Key Stage 3 at the Workers’ Liberty conference in December. I want to explain why.

The hijab isn’t just a piece of clothing, or even just a piece of religious clothing. It has strong political connotations with religious conservatism. It is closely associated with the notion of modesty, a sexist modesty which means women have to cover up to avoid arousing men. Martin Thomas correctly wrote in 2003, during a previous discussion within Workers’ Liberty:

“Whatever it is in an individual’s mind, socially and historically the hijab is not just a token of religious ideas.

“It represents and embodies women’s oppression. It defines the woman or girl who wears it as the property of the men (father, brothers, husband) to whom the right to see her unveiled is reserved. Wherever it becomes the norm, it is inseparable from the segregation and subordination of women.”

And this representation and embodiment of women’s oppression, defining women and girls as the property of men, is increasingly being worn by girls in primary school. The notion that girls under 11 must dress modestly or else risk arousing men is particularly abhorrent. The notion that any problem here is the woman or girl’s fault is a version of “she was asking for it” argument.

The hijab is not equivalent to a mini-skirt (no matter what the sexist societal pressures that maybe on women to bare their legs), let alone a hoodie. It is a political symbol. We cannot accept the hijab becoming the norm in our schools and thus allowing within them ‘the segregation and subordination of women’ (and girls).

As socialists we recognise there is much wrong with the education system and schools as they exist. However, we also recognise the immense potentially liberating power of schools. We fight for them to allow the pupils and students within them to find other potentials than the ones that their family and their communities see as the only possibilities for them.

We also fight to make schools spaces free from oppression. We recognise that often this means pressurising the government to intervene into schools. Recently we have seen this in the partial victory of the long running campaign to improve Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in schools and to include LGBT+ education as part of this.

In terms of the hijab, we should make propaganda and campaign for the government to ban it in schools up to Key Stage 3 (up to age 14).

We should not campaign for individual school workers or individual schools to pursue a ban on the hijab. That would open doors to abuse and reaction. We are for governments, even bourgeois governments, acting to protect children against oppression and in favour of allowing them to be fully able to partake in education.

The argument has been made that some radical young women from Muslim backgrounds choose to wear the hijab as an act of rebellion/solidarity. This is exaggerated. It does happen, but normally it is women over 14. Young people who choose to align themselves with reaction in the misguided belief it is rebellion must be dissuaded. Where their decision has an effect on others, as the wearing of the hijab clearly does, they must be stopped.

Another argument made is that the effect of the ban would be that these girls and women would leave non-faith schools and go to Muslim schools where they can wear the hijab. Many of the reforms we fight for require additional actions to ensure they are effective. For instance, tax the rich will not work without capital controls and increased attempts to stop the bosses avoiding tax.

More tellingly, if we accepted this argument we would face the same argument when reactionaries opposed their children doing sport, Religious Education, science or RSE. When we now consider this argument in the light of the protests over the new RSE curriculum it clearly falls apart.

I hope no one would suggest sacrificing RSE to avoid school withdrawals.

Daniel Randall replies here.


Submitted by Elizabeth Kitching (not verified) on Sun, 22/09/2019 - 13:34

This is not a socialist position at all. To pick on an oppressed group in Britain, isolate them for a headscarf is not socialist. This is a right wing position inline with Tories and Nigel The Far Right Rager. France?! This will lead to young women and girls being attacked - as they are now for cultural expression. I know many leading socialists who are Muslim and who wear the headscarf. Your reasons are also Islamophobic and therefore racist. You cannot assume that it is men that force this headscarf. If you do, you are showing your ignorance about Islam. If there was a state ban on the hijab - we socialists would call a mass demonstration where we all where it.

Submitted by Julie Webster (not verified) on Sun, 22/09/2019 - 13:45

Preventing muslim school girls from wearing a hijab is racist. In cases where the parents are deciding what a child can wear - well ALL parents do that. You are singling out Muslim girls and their families.

This is paternalistic racism with a dash of sexism.

The far right would be proud of you.

This motion is a disgrace.

Submitted by Dermot Smyth (not verified) on Sun, 22/09/2019 - 17:11

A woman's right to choose her clothes overrides anything said by AWL. At any age, a girl or woman is showing solidarity with their racially oppressed community when they start wearing head or face coverings.
All oppressed people must fight back in their own fashion. Encouragement and support from all anti- racists can help. What they don't need is a really, really small political sect giving them public lectures.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 23/09/2019 - 11:29

The analysis of hijab, Islamic religious clothing based on codes of female modesty, which David Pendletone asserts in his article in Solidarity 517 is commonplace amongst many Muslim-background feminists, amongst whom the issue of state bans is highly contested.

Iranian writer Chadhortt Djavan, who does support state bans on hijab for young girls, wrote in her pamphlet ‘Bas les Voiles’ (Down with Veils): “What does veiling do to a girl child? It turns her into a sexual object [...] it defines her essentially by and for men’s eyes.” Algerian socialist-feminist Marieme Helie Lucas, who has opposed state bans of the French type, has written extensively of how hijab and veiling has developed into a cultural-political practise posed in religious terms, asserted by Islamists to promote a conservative interpretation of Islamic cultural-political identity.

Such views are not commonplace on the left. During the past two decades, various tendencies on the left, most prominently the Socialist Workers Party, have adopted a view of Islamic religiosity that sees it almost necessarily as an expression of a progressive anti-imperialism. The argument runs that, since Muslims are discriminated against in the west and since the “Muslim world” is in a secondary position relative to US imperialism, the practise of Islam itself becomes a form of resistance.

Those who took our politics to their highest ever peak would abhor such a view: the Bolsheviks conducted vigorous campaigns against religious obscurantism in general and against veiling and hijab in particular, despite the very much oppressed position Muslim-majority national and ethnic groups occupied within the Tsarist Empire the Bolsheviks sought to dismantle.

They managed to combine a militant hostility to the patriarchal oppression inherent in conservative religious practise with a militant commitment to the democratic, national, and civil rights of the Muslim-majority peoples Tsarism had colonised.

Reconnecting to those traditions of militant secularism, which have deteriorated significantly under the influence not only of a vulgar “anti-imperialism” but also a post-modernist cultural relativism, would be a very good thing indeed.

It does not at all follow, however, that the way to do this is for socialists to advocate state bans on hijab or other religious practises connected to gender oppression.

Such bans - or, more likely, the campaigns for them - will inevitably be exploited by those who oppose Islam not on the basis of a secularist or feminist critique of religion but on the basis of an ethnonationalist hostility to Muslim immigrants.

Context and agency matter, and David makes his argument in the context of a vicious and ongoing campaign of demonisation of Muslims in the tabloid press, given license by the dogwhistles of senior politicians.

Should the state, under the administration of such people, move to ban hijab from any sphere of public life it would certainly not be doing so on the basis of a commitment to secularism and women’s rights, but as a means of protecting its right flank and playing to the nationalist gallery whipped into an anti-migrant frenzy by the context of Brexit.

David’s argument also relies on an unsubstantiated assertion that the wearing of hijab amongst primary-school-aged girls is increasing, with the implication that state action is necessary to protect the rights of children whose ability to meaningfully consent to participation in gendered religious or cultural practises is more complicated than with older girls
or women.

Other than the National Secular Society’s 2017 study into compulsory hijab for primary-aged children in specifically Islamic religious schools (a slightly different context), I am not aware of any definitive statistical research on the matter. If David knows of some, he should provide it. To advocate a state ban on the basis of impressionistic evidence is not good

To advocate one only on hijab, and not on the perhaps less visible but similarly oppressive cultural practises of other conservative faith groups, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews, risks feeding into a sense of discrimination and singling out.

I have no doubt that David, who undoubtedly had in mind the context of what has been a specific and live issue in the British education system as recently as last year, with the furore over headteacher Neena Lall’s attempt to ban hijab in her east London primary school, does not intend this. Nevertheless, the risk is there.

The practise of hijab can be targeted by a ban because of its nature as a physical item. But all religions, especially in their conservative and orthodox forms, are patriarchal and oppressive, at the level of ideas. We cannot simply call on the state to “ban” such oppression; we can only look to build an assertive secularist, feminist, and LGBT+ liberation movement
that can confront it at its ideological root.

The agency that will push back oppressive religious or cultural customs is primarily feminist and secularist movements within faith communities. Those of us outside such communities can contribute best by supporting and amplifying their struggles, not by calling for bans.

Some Muslim-background feminists do call for a ban on the hijab in primary schools. In February 2018, Iranian-British comedian and writer Shappi Khorshandi spoke up in defence of Neena Lall, saying: “Let little girls have the freedom to feel the wind in their hair as they tear around the playground with their friends.” The argument is compelling and should be respected and engaged with without simply being denounced, and certainly Lall should have been defended from the vicious campaign against her that decried her as a racist and compared her to Hitler. But ultimately a ban is too blunt an instrument in this case, and in this context.

David is right that lines have to be drawn somewhere. The protests against LGBT+ education in primary schools pose the question: to what extent should socialists advocate the state intervene into schools against the “right” of parents to educate their children in their own religious ideas?

I am certainly for compulsory RSE, including LGBT+ education, and against the right of religious parents to withdraw their children from science or PE classes. And schools should certainly encourage an atmosphere of freedom and choice in which girls and young women who want to question and potentially reject the strictures of their parents’ religion are able to do so.

I do not believe a state ban on hijab would do this. More likely it will have the affect of increasing the sense of social siege under which Muslim communities as a whole feel, making the development of dissenting politics harder, not easier. The left has to combine a vigorous defence of Muslim communities against racism, from both the press, the far right, and the state, with a vigorous campaign for secularism and feminism, including secularist and feminist education, primarily in solidarity with those asserting such ideas and critiques within Muslim and other faith communities.

Daniel Randall

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 23/09/2019 - 11:41

Policy passed in 2004

1. We oppose the hijab as a social mechanism of female subordination, and we oppose pressure on girls wear the hijab. Our priority is to help and support secularists and leftists in the mainly-Muslim communities who fight that pressure.
2. We are for universal secular education. We should seek to launch a counter-campaign in Britain against faith schools, the intrusion of religion in ordinary state schools, and the toleration, in the name of multi-culturalism, of Muslim girls being excluded by parental pressure from parts of education.
3. We do not support the new French law [banning the hijab in schools]. It will probably be counter-productive. It fails to allow the necessary space for dealing sensitively and respectfully with teenagers’ desires to experiment in dealing with the world around them.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 24/09/2019 - 20:27

This is a debate we are conducting in the AWL in the run up to our conference.

Our existing policy decided in relation to the French ban on the hijab/veil in schools is printed above. It opposes that ban.

Indeed our existing policy is not to support bans on the hijab in any context.

This is not a debate about policies for the whole of society, or for adult society, but about schools.

Therefore comments about what *women* chose to wear, or not wear, are irrelevant to this discussion. As are comments about general bans.

Thank you.

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