Against the school hijab ban demand

Submitted by AWL on 4 December, 2019 - 4:58 Author: Ben Tausz
hijab school

See here for wider debate in Solidarity on the ban of the hijab in schools.

In his most recent letter defending his demand for a hijab ban in schools, David Pendletone says “I … do not think that you need to have a solution [of how a ban might be enforced] to support a ban of the hijab for children in primary schools”.

This is absurd and deeply irresponsible, given the counter-productive and dangerous consequences of many (I would argue all) possible scenarios of enforcement. What it reflects is that this demand seems founded more on an insistence that ‘something must be done’, more than on serious consideration of what would genuinely be likely to improve freedom and protection for children.

On teachers instructing children to remove the hijab, Pendletone has written, “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.” This doesn’t sound very liberatory. Compulsion from one set of authority figures — parents — is simply added to with rival compulsion from another authority figure.

Pendletone has repeatedly said that it is important to understand the hijab is not merely a superficial item of clothing, but his proposal fails to address it on any level other than that. There is no increased space here for the child’s own agency and freedom, and nothing is done to address the misogynistic ideology that is the real problem in this and all conservative religion. The child is singled out for discipline – utterly counter-productive and itself likely to send a victim-blaming message – and her status as covered or uncovered for six-and-a-half hours per day turned into a token. On one suggestion, she is subjected to additional lessons – as if she is the problem!

Just as a practical aside, if we also support the abolition of compulsory school uniforms (as we should) then enforcement becomes even more complex. At one end of the spectrum, some adherents of the hijab consider that a baggy hooded jumper with the hood strings pulled tight can fulfil their religious requirements. Would Pendletone ban all clothes that cover the hair and hang loose? Or just ban them for girls from Muslim families?

The reality is that there simply is no quick or easy fix here. As Katy Dollar points out, unless you propose to remove children from all religiously conservative families – clearly unacceptable and unworkable – overturning deeply-rooted religious bigotry simply cannot be helped by a mechanical, superficial policy like this. Pendletone’s demand that opponents of his motion must come up with an alternative “solution” is a refusal to accept the truth that defeating reaction is going to be a long battle, conducted mainly on the ideological front rather than by regulations

Dollar has also pointed out that it is misguided to push against religious bigotry by launching a demand that narrowly targets an increasingly oppressed and besieged minority community.

Pendletone has responded that it is not him, but the religious reactionaries, who have chosen this terrain. This is straightforwardly false, unless Pendletone believes that there are no other prominent and serious examples of religious bigotry in society at present.

When antisemitic politics apply a double-standard and disproportionate focus on the Israeli state, and justify themselves with claims that it is the Israelis who are responsible for creating that focus, we highlight and criticise that. We also understand that a person does not need to hold personal animosity towards Jewish people, or be “an antisemite”, to hold and advocate antisemitic politics.

Our organisation needs to think much more carefully about applying some of the same principles and analysis we use in relation to antisemitism, to anti-Muslim discrimination as well. This policy – with its misguided targeting and its stated indifference to questions of the material implementation of its demand (and therefore its consequences) – is politically anti-Muslim.

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