Banning hijab in schools: a breach of religious and cultural rights
Categories: Latest News
Tuesday May 14 2019
The Islamophobia Response Unit (IRU) has received a number of recent reports of girls in schools not being allowed to wear a hijab. One recent example of this is a state-funded Catholic secondary school in Southwark, South London, refusing an 11-year-old Muslim girl a place at the school because she wears a hijab.
Restricting the right to religious dress is a breach of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights which states “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” This right is enshrined in UK legislation by the Human Rights Act, 1998, and further strengthened by Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ICCPR gives ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities the right to enjoy their own culture. For children, wearing the hijab may be as much as a cultural practice as a religious practice, and therefore, is protected by the individual’s right to cultural identity. Allowing schoolchildren to express their religio-cultural identity enables them to develop and thrive with a secure sense of their value and place in society.
The current concern surrounding young Muslim girls’ dress has been particularly heightened since November 2017, when Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman said that “inspectors will talk to girls who wear such garments [the hijab] to ascertain why they do so in the school.” Her reasoning was that “creating an environment where primary school children are expected to wear the hijab could be interpreted as the sexualisation of young girls”. By making these comments, Amanda Spielman furthers an ethno-centric and orientalist view of Muslim women’s dress. Campaigners, such as Zubeda Limbada from Connect Futures, have pointed out that Spielman offered no evidence of sexualisation, nor how it is more sexualising than a kippah or joorah. Such orientalist tropes essentialises women by not taking account of their lived experiences and does nothing to combat issues that they are actually facing. The protection of religious and cultural rights and recognition of their importance is of benefit to all women as it allows issues to be addressed honestly and meaningfully.
Amanda Spielman’s comments also open Muslim girls to further victimisation. The National Education Union (NEU) condemned Spielman’s comments, with Kevin Courtney, the Joint Secretary General of the NEU, saying that Ms Spielman’s comments would be “very damaging to community relations” and that it opens Muslim girls to further stigma. Bullying motivated by racism remains a widespread problem in schools. In a review of counselling offered to young people during the period 2012/13, ChildLine found a 69% increase on the previous year in counselling related to racist bullying, with terms such as “bomber” and “terrorist” being frequently used, along with children being told to “go back to where you came from”. In more recent times, Islamophobic bullying in schools has been correlated with incidents of domestic and international terrorism, with pupils reporting a high number of cases of verbal and physical abuse demeaning young Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim.
Clearly, Muslim children are already vulnerable to victimisation and Amanda Spielman’s comments serve on to problematise Muslim identities further. Schools must set an example for their students and take a strong stance on respecting religious and cultural rights if there is any hope of tackling racially and religiously motivated bullying in the classroom. Muslims communities are increasingly at the centre of discriminatory policies and there are concerns surrounding how such policies stemming from Ofsted will impact young Muslims in schools. The Runnymede Trust warned that Ms Spielman’s comments raise concerns that a precedent is set to legitimise and promote further discriminatory policies against Muslim children. Alongside PREVENT, such politics further enforce notions of Muslim religious identities as problematic. Legitimising the problematisation of religious and cultural rights from such as young age marginalises and excludes Muslims from fully participating in social, civic, and political life and undermines their sense of value in society.
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. MEND calls upon policymakers to commit to preserving human rights and the protection of minority rights, including, but not limited to, the rights to religious slaughter, male circumcision, and the wearing of religious dress or symbols as currently enshrined within UK legislation.