100 years since women were first allowed to vote – and we’re still not trusted to decide what to wear.
Categories: Latest News
Wednesday February 07 2018
This week marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the UK – a hard won battle that followed more than 80 years of campaigning for the singular and determined belief that women were not inferior to men. A right that many of us now take for granted, but a right which secures our position as British citizens.
However, whilst women may now be trusted to have opinions on who runs our country, and indeed actually run it, it would appear that they are still not trusted to decide what to wear.
The fixation on women’s dress is not a new phenomenon. The clothing women wear frequently takes precedence over the actions, opinions and contributions they make whilst they are wearing it.
An interesting case was when the Australian presenter Karl Stefanovic wore the same suit for a year. This was in response to his colleague, Lisa Wilkinson, telling him about the frequent letters she receives in regards to her clothing choice. Mr Stefanovic, in contrast to Ms Wilkinson, was able to wear the same suit for a year without a single letter being sent in by viewers complaining about his overworked suit.
More recently, the Daily Mail recently ran a front-page headline against a picture of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon reading “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” The two highest ranking politicians in the country and yet, the Daily Mail is more interested in their skirt length.
All women must navigate this minefield of acceptable fashion choices on a daily basis.
However, one group of women that arguably come under an additional layer of scrutiny is Muslim women.
Muslim women often suffer multi-level discrimination with the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee report in 2016 on Employment Opportunities for Muslims in the UK concluding that Muslim Women faced a ‘triple penalty’ of being a woman, being BME and being Muslim; of which being a Muslim was the most significant barrier.
Research has shown that one in eight Pakistani women having being illegally asked about marriage and family aspirations in job interviews – compared to one in thirty white women.
Progression has also been shown to be a problem with 50% of women wearing the hijab feeling that they have missed on progression opportunities because of religious discrimination and that the wearing of the hijab had been a factor.
The obsessive focus on Muslim women’s dress has fuelled various proxy debates on the topic of the supposed lack of British Muslim integration within the British society. A Muslim woman’s choice to cover her hair is frequently seen to be an indication of her refusal, or her inability, to integrate into British culture and her rejection of “British Values”.
Meanwhile, the hijab is simultaneously portrayed as a symbol of Muslim women’s oppression in the name of an apparent “sexist” religion and at the hands of their male family members.
While there can be little doubt that no woman should be forced to wear any item of clothing against her will, when it is her choice to wear the hijab, that right of choice is protected by her undeniable human rights.
The right to wear religious clothing is protected by Article 9 of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998, which protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This includes the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance. Wearing the hijab is part of that religious observance.
The banning of the hijab also goes against Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which gives ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities the right to enjoy their own culture. While many may question the religious requirements for a girl to wear the hijab before puberty, it is accepted that wearing it is a cultural practice, and therefore protected by the individual’s right to cultural identity.
Despite these rights, the negative representations and narratives fuelled by the media and our politicians has led to a public pressure to remove the hijab from public life.
Last year the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that “companies can ban employees from wearing the Islamic headscarf”. Considering the aforementioned discrimination that Muslim women face in terms of employment, this ruling can only serve to compound this problem.
Other incidents of hostility towards the hijab have been more violent.
In 2016, the Independent reported that a Muslim woman had been attacked, in Chingford, by two people who attempted to rip off her hijab and, when failing to do so, dragged the woman along the pavement by her hijab.
This hostility towards Muslim women’s dress has even been adopted as policy by some of the very public bodies that are tasked with representing and protecting the rights of all citizens.
In a recent article in The Times, Rosemary Bennet writes about how Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, has made “tackling religious extremism one of her main goals”.
In an article in the Guardian last year, it was reported that Ms Spielman had announced that Inspectors would be allowed to question primary school girls who wear the hijab due to concerns that the hijab “sexualises” young girls.
However, it would appear that Ms Spielman’s rhetoric and recommendations point towards a misunderstanding of the meaning and significance of the hijab for Muslim women. For an overview of the many problems with Ms Spielman’s recommendation, see here.
Indeed, the hijab is purely a religious symbol and is no more an indication of extremism than is the crucifix, the skull cap or the turban. The danger of influential public figures conflating religious dress with extremism without any evidence is to malign practicing Muslim women and girls, and to marginalise them within public life – which is a form of Islamophobia through exclusion.
This manifestation of prejudice-based feelings and consequent marginalization of Muslim women and girls is just one form of Islamophobia present in the British community – Islamophobia through the exclusion of Muslims.
These recommendations and positions taken by Ofsted have been mirrored within the St Stephen school controversy in Newham after Neena Lall – St Stephen’s head teacher –decided to ban the wearing of the hijab by her pupils under the age of eight.
Such obsessive and narrow focus on the hijab sends a damaging message to Muslim girls who wear the hijab, and is indicative of the structural discrimination that Muslim girls face from a very early age, and which will continue to impact them throughout their adolescence and adulthood.
Stigmatising young Muslim girls for wearing the hijab can only serve to fuel the perception that Muslim women are negatively judged and stereotyped on the basis of the clothes they wear, as opposed to the skills, qualities and talents they have to offer.
While women may now have the vote, they are still fighting to be recognised for what is in their heads instead of what is on it – and this fight is starting from an early age.