A new hijab controversy erupts in the UK
London - The hijab has returned to the spotlight in the United Kingdom after it was reported that government school inspectors had been given guidelines to question primary school girls about why they wore the headscarf.
While many Muslims reacted with anger at the revelations, others welcomed the government’s intervention, questioning why primary school girls should be wearing the hijab at all.
The controversy came after the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), which is responsible for inspecting the United Kingdom’s schools and teaching, received an official recommendation for inspectors to question schoolgirls aged between 5 and 11 on why they wore the religious headscarf.
“While respecting parents’ choice to bring up their children according to their cultural norms, creating an environment where primary school children are expected to wear the hijab could be interpreted as the sexualisation of young girls,” said Amanda Spielmen, Ofsted’s chief inspector of schools.
“In seeking to address these concerns, and in line with our current practice in terms of assessing whether the school promotes equality for their children, inspectors will talk to girls who wear such garments to ascertain why they do so in the school.”
The recommendation came following a meeting between Spielman and campaigners against the hijab in schools.
One activist, Amina Lone, co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation, previously said the hijab has no place in primary schools.
Most mainstream interpretations of Islam hold that the hijab should only be worn after puberty and that young children need not cover their hair.
“Muslim girls as young as five are increasingly veiled and schools are sanctioning this by including it as part of school uniform policies,” a joint open letter to the Sunday Times signed by Lone and other Muslim anti-hijab campaigners said.
The letter warned that Britain “has an abysmal record of protecting young Muslim girls, who suffer under the pretext of protecting religious freedoms,” and called on the government not to “turn a blind eye when our schools are being politicised.”
“Countries such as India and Tunisia are fighting back against male-dominated orthodoxies and protecting women’s rights against cultural and ultra-conservative religious practices,” the letter added, calling on the UK government to do the same.
Lone, who spoke out against a 2017 Transport for London campaign that depicted a young Muslim child wearing the hijab, has warned that young girls wearing the hijab is being normalised.
“A minority of very vocal hardliners within Muslim communities are pushing a narrow version of what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ Muslim woman… They seek to encourage increasingly young girls to cover themselves… This is not a tradition mandated by any religious scripture,” she wrote in the Guardian.
A Sunday Times survey revealed that nearly one fifth (18%) of 800 state primary schools in 11 regions of England included the hijab as part of the uniform policy, mostly as an optional item.
However, some local Muslim groups have criticised the government intervention, seeing it as part of a broader campaign to restrict religious freedoms in schools.
A recent court order made it illegal to segregate girls and boys at the primary school level — something that a number of Muslim schools in the United Kingdom do.
“It is deeply worrying that Ofsted has announced it will be specifically targeting and quizzing young Muslim girls who choose to wear the headscarf. It sends a clear message to all British women who adopt this that they are second-class citizens, that while they are free to wear the headscarf, the establishment would prefer they do not,” said Harun Khan, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain.
“One can only hope that this wrong-headed approach will be swiftly reversed, and the reasonable and sincere choices of young children and their parents — even if they are Muslim — will not be dismissed so easily.”