Ofsted have announced that they will question primary school-aged Muslim girls who wear hijab over concerns of sexualisation. This suggestion comes a few months after Muslim feminist campaigners suggested the hijab should be banned in primary schools over similar concerns. News of this should be welcome to the likes of Amina Lone, who was among those who campaigned for the ban, but it also seems adversarial that the best way to challenge misogyny and misunderstandings of the faith is to get the state to police young girls.
Taking a step back, the battle for and against hijab seems to have been raging on for years. Around a decade ago, I recall hearing talks about why hijab is about a woman’s modesty, reading ridiculous articles on why Muslim women shouldn’t wear coloured hijabs and have seen debates on social media about what hijab truly means. Most of this discussion has been dominated by misogynists who believe that the wearing of hijab is for the protection of a woman’s sexual modesty. My own personal view is not so reductive, and similar sentiments are shared by other Muslim women. However, the discussion on hijab has barely moved an inch beyond the idea of it being for the protection of women, their modesty and sexual advances from men. Yet, in all of this the key word has always been women. Where the idea of young girls wearing hijab comes from is not steeped in either the Quran or hadith; there is no injunction on the wearing of hijab prior to puberty in normative Islamic scholarship either. There may even be a scholarly argument for girls choosing to wear it once they’re much older and can be defined as young women, and yet that discussion is only relevant in the context of the culture in which we reside and what is defined as ‘young women’. The bottom line is that nowhere in Islam does it say that young girls need to wear hijab, nor is it even implied that they need to wear it to ‘get used to it’ as many people will argue. The question then is – if it’s not from Islam, why are girls wearing hijab at primary school?
Lack of education in any area results in many damaging misrepresentations; in this case, it’s Islam. For many Muslims who claim to uphold the ‘values of Islam’ by sending their daughters to school in hijab and demanding that it become part of school uniform policy, this lack of religious education can have a negative impact on wider society. However, these are not Islamic values, but rather culturally-instigated values. One could argue that there is nothing wrong with asserting one’s culture as part of self-expression, but there are so many problems with this argument. Firstly, hijab is not a cultural marker, but a religious marker. It’s worn out of conviction in God, not out of conviction in one’s culture. Secondly, Islam is not a culture, but quite literally submission to God and anyone can be a Muslim. You don’t have to subscribe to a particular culture to be a Muslim. If the understanding of hijab is sold off as a cultural marker, then not only does it fall out of the freedom of religion Muslims have in this country, it also secularises a religious injunction that is worn out of a commitment to Allah and loses its theological value completely.
Much of how the purpose of hijab is understood by British Muslims comes from their ancestral immigrant values about women and their worth is placed on how much they cover and how much they reveal. This is not too dissimilar to the value placed on a woman’s worth in the Western world either, but the discussion of it is far more subtle and nuanced. Our conception of hijab is understood through cultural values that have little to no place in Britain – its insistence on being purely to act as a shield against the male gaze for the sake of a woman’s modesty has become so entrenched in our minds that we feel that young girls who have no conception of sexual modesty need to be protected in exactly the same way. In essence, this sexualises young girls and that is a problem on a societal level. By making young girls aware of their sexuality through the wearing of hijab means their self-value is placed in their objectification instead of in the strength of their faith. Therefore why should the strength of a young girl’s faith rest on whether she covers her head or not? There are better ways for children to learn about God and Islam than through the wearing of hijab.
Even if they aren’t wearing hijab for the purpose of modesty, it still isn’t mandatory for them to wear it in school whether they really want to copy their mother or not. Mum might wear hijab and daughter may want to copy her, but this should be supported as an innocent expression of childhood and the choices children make as part of pretend play. Moreover, we must acknowledge that those parents who allow their daughters to wear hijab to school are still making choices for them, particularly if the mothers themselves are wearing the abaya or niqab. So instead of trying to influence school policy in the public, we should exercise our parenting choices in private.
What hijab really entails and for whom is an incredibly important discussion the Muslim community needs to have, but Ofsted’s intervention in this area is owing to the self-professed Muslim feminists who might be patting themselves on the back right now, yet are actually doing very little to combat Muslim misogynists. Instead of directly challenging the hierarchical chauvinism that exists within the religious institutions that suggest the hijab for girls in the first place, these women felt it necessary to put young girls under pressure by either banning the hijab or supporting an interrogation by the state. This is tantamount to advocating for the policing of children and making young girls who may wear hijab merely out of ‘wanting to be like mum’ become unnecessarily conscious of their sexuality. Essentially, questioning girls on why they wear an item of clothing over concerns of sexualisation leads them to define themselves in the way adults view them and prevents girls even more from asserting themselves as children.
If there is anything we need to look out for as this saga unfolds, it’s what the resultant impact will be on the girls under question and whether they will ever feel confident again in expressing themselves without adults putting them under scrutiny.