Debating a ban on the hijab in schools

Submitted by AWL on 23 October, 2019 - 8:56
hijab

Hijab school ban would mis-focus

Katy Dollar

We are right to oppose the hijab as a social mechanism of female subordination, and we oppose pressure on girls to wear the hijab.

Our priority is to help and support secularists and leftists in the mainly-Muslim communities and who fight that pressure. It is true that the concept of female modesty, whether motivated by women as tempters, or as requiring protection, embodies women’s oppression and is inseparable from the segregation and subordination of women.

The debate about children rather than teenagers and young people must be had on very different terms than the previous discussions which focused on teenagers due to the French context.

Here the broader context is “parents’ rights”, the extent to which people have a right to make decisions over their children’s lives, and where the limits fall. This is a very important discussion, one which brings in home-schooling, religious schools, withdrawing from various aspects of the curriculum, healthcare and much more.

To start this discussion by focusing on an oppressed minority community at the time the far right is growing and the centre right is increasingly racist is not helpful.

The argument that it is a “safeguarding issue” seems to me stretching safeguarding to a point that is no longer a workable framework. The issue is not the piece of material, or the fact that a child’s hair is covered, but the fact they are being raised in a framework of reactionary ideas. In that case the removal of head covering whilst at school does very little to positively improve their lives.

If it was a safeguarding issue like others for children, the logic would not be schools banning the hijab but the removal of children from families who prescribe “modesty” for girls, or minimally social services intervention. That is not a useful way to relate to such ideas within the family structure.

If not a state ban, what instead? Clearly part of the answer is support for secularists, leftists, and feminists within Muslim communities. Within schools, specifically, we should argue that in matters relating to gender or LGBT oppression within the family a degree of confidentiality should be established between children and the school.

It should be made clear that all children and young people should be able to remove any religious clothing they wish in school without that being reported to parents. Schools should provide forums, collective and one-to-one, where children can explore ideas about their own identities, rights and lives, confident that what is discussed will be reported back only in very particular circumstances (safeguarding, etc.).

We should begin a much more wide-reaching discussion about parents’ rights over their children’s lives, while understanding that many families have understandable concerns about the state and wider society in relation to the rights and safety of themselves and their children.

Hijab ban: How could it be enforced?

Ian Townson

The hijab isn’t just about “modesty” which blames girls or women for being temptresses or “asking for it”, and absolves men from responsibility for their own actions — though it would be outrageous to expect men to wear chastity belts!

It strips girls of their autonomy as human beings by making them male property. It is also partly about capturing their consciousness at an early age in a similar way to the Catholic/Aristotelian notion of “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”.

In other words it is an attempt to “hard-wire” religious values and practices permanently and irrevocably into the minds of girls. The hijab plays a part in this form of indoctrination and is reflected throughout life in other forms of female subordination.

That is why it is vital that we show solidarity with secularists and leftists in the Muslim community. Ultimately we are opposed to the non-materialist mystifications of religion, but in the meantime we do not try to stop people using their mosques, synagogues, Christian churches, temples etc. for temporary comfort zones. Schools, however, should be a place of free enquiry, with the expectation that students are encouraged to develop their abilities in the widest and deepest possible way to become fully rounded human beings.

Religious schools can never achieve that. There is no reason why that cannot be put to teachers and parents though in a less strident and more friendly way than I have put it.

It’s been pointed out that no-one objected to banning Christian “purity rings’ from schools. If we’re more hesitant about the hijab, is it that we are afraid of being accused of racism and of giving succour to far-right crap?

The way we counter that is to explain clearly and precisely what our opposition is all about, and not be intimidated by the Left.

But I am not sure how a ban on hijabs will be enforced.

I am also not convinced that parents should have the right to choose which parts of the curriculum their children should be allowed to take part in or how they should be established. Christians have objected to Darwinism in schools without comparable lessons in creationism! The recent controversy in Birmingham over LGBT rights education encourages queer-bashing — subtle or otherwise.

All of these issues should be open to public debate with teachers and parents present.

We have to start from here

David Pendletone

Katy Dollar writes: “To start this discussion by focusing on an oppressed minority community at the time the far right is growing and the centre right is increasingly racist is not helpful”.

This is the “I wouldn’t start from here” approach to politics. It is clearly not where we would choose to have this battle, all things being equal, but we haven’t chosen the terrain. The religious reactionaries have.

To respond to “[embodiment of] women’s oppression [which] is inseparable from the segregation and subordination of women” being enforced on more and younger girls by saying we can’t start the discussion here because it focuses on an oppressed minority is to lose our moral and political compass as revolutionaries.

What about the recent case of a private Islamic school shut down because it “wilfully neglected” safeguarding? Should we oppose Ofsted’s concerns because focusing on an oppressed minority community… is not helpful?

Katy further questions whether the hijab is a safeguarding issue.

In safeguarding training in schools you are trained to recognise emotional, physical, sexual and neglect as forms of abuse that are often overlaid and interconnected but can stand alone.

Workers in schools are told to raise the alarm if they see signs of any one of these.

I maintain that the enforcement of the hijab in primary schools is certainly emotional abuse. If making children wear an embodiment of their oppression, segregating them and subordinating them, isn’t emotional abuse, someone needs to make the case.

I also believe that the hijab may also exhibit characteristics of physical, sexual and neglect abuse. It is abuse in plain sight.

That we cannot stop or control all abuse that occurs outside of school does not mean we should allow to occur in school.
Children get hit when they are at home. That doesn’t mean we should allow it to happen in school premises.

Katy writes: “We should argue that in matters relating to gender or LGBT oppression within the family a degree of confidentiality should be established between children and the school”.

I agree with this. But the demonstrations around Birmingham schools concerning the new RSE curriculum, was largely perceived to have all the drawbacks of “focusing on an oppressed minority community at the time the far right is growing and the centre right is increasingly racist” which Ruth describes as “not helpful”.

“It should be made clear that all children and young people should be able to remove any religious clothing they wish in school without this being reported to parents”.

I agree with that too, but it fails to deal with the fact that reporting is less likely to be done by the school, and more likely to be done by siblings or contemporaries in the school.

“Schools should provide forums, collective and one-to-one, where children can explore ideas about their own identities, rights and lives, confident that what is discussed will be reported back only in very particular circumstances (safeguarding, etc.)”. Yes, but how far can that exploration go when the pupils are wearing an embodiment of women’s oppression, segregation and subordination?

“We should begin a much more wide-reaching discussion about parents’ rights over their children’s lives, while understanding that many families have understandable concerns about the state and wider society in relation to the rights and safety of themselves and their children”.

Who isn’t in favour of more discussion? But it can always be used to avoid calling for a definite action.

Taken as a whole these proposals once again strike me as a scrabbling round to find a way to address the problem whilst trying to avoid the most obvious answer: banning the hijab in primary schools.

I think I agree with Ian’s points.

He asks: how would a ban be enforced? I think that the Department for Education would ban it in primary schools, and issue guidance that children attending school with the hijab should be asked to remove it in a non-confrontational and sensitive way by people working at the school. Given these are primary school children, the vast majority will comply
unless they have been drilled by their parents or religious bigots in their community to not comply.

In the instances where there is refusal, we should insist that the children are not sent home or isolated, but on the contrary that they are educated within the school and a letter explaining the policy is sent to the parents.

Possibly we should consider provision that the children should then have additional age-appropriate lesson(s) about feminism and gender, I would propose getting feminists and secularist from Muslim backgrounds to work on creating a programme which appropriately addresses the issues of segregation, oppression, modesty and the hijab.

Finally, an anecdote, recently, I went for a drink with some comrades we work closely with in the Labour Party. One of them had obviously heard about this debate, and asked me about it.

Both initially disagreed with me, but after ten minutes discussion, both said they strongly agreed. We can win this argument.

Foisted, not a choice

Matt Kinsella

Daniel Randall in Solidarity 518 states that David Pendletone’s argument for banning the hijab in schools is based on “an unsubstantiated assertion that the wearing of hijab amongst primary-school-aged girls is increasing”.

I would dispute that there is no evidence. The National Secular Society in 2017 found that the incidence of hijab-wearing is growing in schools, and particularly that younger and younger children are wearing it. In 2017, out of 142 Islamic schools that accept girls, 59 have uniform policies on their website that suggest a headscarf or another form of hijab is compulsory.

This includes eight state-funded schools and 27 primary schools, three of which are state-funded. That means girls as young as four years old. The same survey found that girls as young as five are wearing the hijab in thousands of non-Islamic schools, which have incorporated it into their uniform codes.

Four and five year olds cannot make judgments about the existence of God or acceptance of religion, or be said to “choose” to wear religious garments . Those garments are foisted on them by their families and communities.

A letter, protesting this increase in hijab-wearing, was sent to Justine Greening, then Education Secretary, in 2017. Its signatories included: Stephen Evans, Campaigns Director of the National Secular Society; Sara Khan, Director of Inspire; and Pragna Patel, director of Southall Black Sisters. I think it is worth quoting at length.

“Given the ‘justifications’ that lie behind so called ‘modesty’ codes, and its implicit sexualisation of children, we regard it as a matter of deep regret that so many schools are facilitating young girls being dressed in the hijab.

“Whilst policies permitted the wearing of the hijab are so often framed in terms of choice and freedom, we urge you to recognise that this ‘freedom’ is often dictated by social pressure.

“Education policy should empower girls and help them to make their own decisions once they are ready to do so. We therefore call on you to work alongside Ofsted to ensure that girls from Muslim backgrounds are supported to have free choices, rather than having so called ‘modesty’ codes imposed on them. No child should be obliged to wear the hijab, or any other article of religious clothing, whilst at school.”

I would ask any comrade against a ban: what other right-wing religious concessions are you willing to make? Segregated schooling? Exclusion from school, for expression of LGBT identity? Genital mutilation? All of these things are harmful to the development of young minds (and bodies). Should it be really be down to individual choice? (or, as in the case of primary school children, really, their parents?).

I am perfectly happy for the state to intervene in schools in a number of areas: to ensure that RSE lessons include discussions on safe sex, consent, LGBT rights etc. I think doctors should have the right to overrule parents when it comes to decisions impacted by religious belief e.g. refusal of blood.

Why is the hijab (and any item for religious clothing for that matter), that different?

The hijab is straightforwardly reactionary and misogynistic. Why else do women have to wear it and men not? The onus is on women to cover up, as only their fathers and brothers, and later, their husbands, have the “right” to see them unveiled. It is a conviction born from the time when women were chattel-property.

As well as that, the logic behind the modesty aspects of the hijab is that men should not bear the responsibility to not assault women; the onus is again on women to cover up, lest they “provoke” men into assaulting them. That is a straightforwardly victim-blaming idea, which I find repellent.

Are you really going to give a single inch to people who think that if an unveiled four-year old is raped, they had it coming?

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