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Ofsted’s hijab proposal echoes Trojan Horse paranoia

Ofsted’s hijab proposal echoes Trojan Horse paranoia

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday November 21 2017

Head of Ofsted Amanda Spielman has announced that inspectors will be allowed to question primary school girls who wear a hijab, The Guardian reports.

The decision came after concerns that the wearing of a hijab by girls as young as four or five “could be interpreted as sexualisation”. In explaining her decision, Spielman adjudged that “inspectors will talk to girls who wear such garments to ascertain why they do so in the school”, and urged “any parent or member of the public who has a concern about fundamentalist groups influencing school policy, or breaching equality law to make a complaint to the school”.

Ofsted’s decision is yet another result of an increasing concern over British Muslims in schools. Following the Trojan Horse affair, which brought the Department for Education and Ofsted to require schools to teach and reflect fundamental British values, the new attack on the hijab shows that there is still a strong suspicion and fear of Muslims in British society.

Indeed, there is an unfortunate high number of apparent issues with Ofsted’s decision to interrogate young girls who wear a hijab, many of which do sadly echo Michael Gove’s Trojan Horse paranoia.

For example, Spielman’s comments clearly indicate that the hijab – the piece of garment that covers the head of women who conform to a certain standard of modesty – is still associated with fundamentalism and extremist tendencies. However, as the hijab is no more a symbol of extremism than the crucifix, the skull cap or the turban, one should indeed wonder whether Spielman’s decision ought to be framed within a wider attempt to malign practicing Muslims and to marginalise them from British public life.

Similarly, it is disheartening that the wearing of the hijab is still seen as a breach of the thus far ill-defined “British values”. Muslim women make invaluable contributions to British society, and are able to do so regardless of the garments they choose to wear. The suggestion that the hijab falls outside the realm of British values is as dangerous as it is offensive to the thousands of hard-working Muslim women populating the country and contributing to the thriving life of British society.

It is also significant that Ofsted itself lists “individual liberties” and “mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” as British values, yet this decision seems to be breaching the very code Ofsted seeks to implement.

Furthermore, there is a significant issue with the formulation of Spielman’s recommendation. Indeed, as it was reported that Spielman met campaigners against the hijab in schools – such as Amina Lone, co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation – it is crucial that more questions are asked about who else exactly was involved in the formulation of Spielman’s recommendation.

Considering the heterogeneity of British Muslims, and the different values, faiths and experiences they carry, it is crucial that a far broader range of perspectives is taken into account when making a decision on such a complex issue.

There are further dimensions to Ofsted’s decisions, which span from inalienable rights to parental choices.

The right to wear religious clothes is protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, which guarantees freedom of thought belief and religion. The wearing of a hijab, or of a Christian cross, or of a Jewish Kippah, is thus encapsulated in the fundamental right to freedom of religious expression, a cornerstone of our democracy and of our global effort to uphold the rights of every individual.

In addition, echoing Prime Minister Theresa May’s comment that “what a woman wears is a woman’s choice”, the right of a woman to never be coerced into wearing any piece of clothing, whether that being something that covers them or that conversely exposes them, should never be questioned.

Of course, the wearing of a hijab by a four or a five years old also falls within the remit of a parental responsibility (or in some cases guardianship), which unequivocally states that it is up to the parents “ to make decisions about the child’s care and upbringing and to administer the child’s property.”

Should there therefore be an issue of actual coercion, which seems to be the base of Spielman’s recommendation, then the issue should be addressed sensitively and confronted through existing safeguarding practices inside the classroom. An all-encompassing practice that results in the questioning of young Muslim girls risks singling out the child as ‘different’ or, worse yet, ‘problematic’; reinforcing the idea that a child is outside of the national identity; and damaging the trust between the pupil and her teachers. In short, nothing would be achieved if not a further stigmatisation and marginalisation that will have a devastating impact in the child’s development.

In this regard, it is also interesting to note that Toby Howarth, the bishop of Bradford, said: “Banning the hijab would be counter-productive in Bradford. It would be telling parents we know better than them what their children should wear.”

Finally, it is particularly concerning that Ofsted has ruled that young pupils wearing the hijab could be suffering from sexualisation. While the hijab serves the very opposite purpose, if Spielman’s main concern is indeed sexualisation, then we should wonder who else is going to be on the receiving end of this decision. Are girls wearing a skirt, or boys wearing a suit, at risk of sexualisation? If so, then we need to be prepared to confront the fact that we are no longer in charge of what we wear.

As a Muslim mother wrote in an open letter to The Guardian“will Ms Spielman be extending this ‘inspection’ to cover other items of clothing? Do short skirts sexualise girls more than trousers? What about girls’ weather-exposed shoes compared to well-padded boys’ shoes? Will Ms Spielman focus only on girls, or are boys wearing skullcaps and turbans bound to be ‘sexualised’ too?

While the implications of Spielman’s decision are clear, the issue here seems to be squarely framed within the wider debate about hijab and Muslims in general, rather than as a genuine concern about sexualisation of four and five year olds.

This is particularly concerning because it sends a sadly familiar message to Muslim girls who wear the hijab. It shows them that once again, the odds are stacked against them at an early age, with these experiences continuing through adolescence and adulthood. Last year Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee outlined in its report, Employment Opportunities for Muslims in the UK, how Muslim women who wear the hijab or niqab are discriminated against in the employment sector, with the report calling for employers to pay particular attention “to the impact of discrimination and the fear of discrimination in the workplace for Muslim women who wear cultural or religious dress”.

Stigmatising young Muslim girls for wearing the hijab at such an early age simply adds to the view that Muslim women are impacted by negatively stereotyped for the clothes they wear, as opposed to the skills, qualities and talent they have to offer.

Even so, logic dictates that engagement with a wide spectrum of organisations when making these decisions is absolutely crucial, and indeed the only way to make informed recommendations based on actual facts.


Click here to read MEND’s letter to Education Secretary Justine Greening MP.


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