Say it loud: hands off the hijab

Issue section: 


Nahella Ashraf

The government and its allies in the media are once again fuelling anti-Muslim attitudes, this time with their attack on the right of young Muslim girls to wear the hijab at school.

Following the chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman’s call for primary schools to consider banning the hijab, Neena Lall, the head of St Stephens School in Newham, east London, imposed such a ruling. But after a meeting of more than 150 parents, she scrapped it, and apologised for her huge error of judgement.

She also denounced a report in the Sunday Times that stated the ban had been put in place because of her concern about the children’s lack of identity with Britain. She explained that the report had been taken out of context.

Normally we would celebrate a situation where more than 150 parents attend a meeting to discuss an issue about their children’s schooling. But in this case the parents have been vilified in the press and accused of going against democracy. The Sunday Times and others lied about the situation at St Stephen’s in order to push an Islamophobic agenda around the hijab.

What is more shocking, however, is the continued support for a ban. Spielman has urged ministers to do more to support schools that make “tough decisions in the interested of their pupils”. And Lord Agnew, the under-secretary with responsibilities for schools systems, faith and counter extremism in education, has also come out pledging to stand up for schools that ban hijabs and fasting.

Some people supporting the ban have justified it on the grounds of religion. They tell us it’s not a requirement of Islam for young girls to wear the hijab. There are many reasons why a young girl would wear the hijab. It is not for politicians, sections of the media or anyone else to decide what is the correct reason and time for women to wear any item of clothing.

The attack on the rights of young Muslim girls to wear the hijab fits with wider government policy. This says that ministers would “support the public sector and civil society in identifying extremists, countering their messages and promoting pluralistic, British values”.

With this as a government policy it’s not surprising that the head of Ofsted went all out to support the St Stephens School ban of the hijab.

The government has an agenda to discredit Muslims, and how easier to do that than by dressing up attacks in the name of supporting women’s rights? As a Muslim woman who has been attacked for wearing a hijab, I will not take lessons from the very politicians that have made me a target of hate crime.

Presently, many schools support the right of a Muslim girl to wear the hijab, but government ministers have already hinted this could be used to claim the schools are “inadequate”, and that right be taken away. If we do not fight the attack on girls wearing the hijab in primary school it will not be long before the ban spreads to secondary school and beyond.

We only have to look at how the banning of the hijab in schools in France has now resulted in a woman on a beach being told by a group of armed police to remove an item of clothing. The ban in France has resulted in Islamophobia becoming widespread and fuelling the rise of the far-right.

This call for a ban does nothing but put Muslims and in particular Muslim women under the spotlight as a problem within our society. We are already seeing hate crime against Muslims rise, in particular physical attacks on Muslim women who dress a certain way.

If this form of racism becomes institutionalised it will not be long before the racists in the street become even more emboldened, and Muslim women who wish to wear the hijab are forced out of sight.

We must not allow this to happen. At a time when we are about to celebrate International Women’s Day, let us not forget the real tradition of that date and fight for the freedom of all women to make their own choices, even if those choices are not the choices we would make.

Join the national demonstrations against racism on 17 March in London, Cardiff and Glasgow, and make it clear that we defend the hijab and a women’s right to decide what she wears.