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.