Saturday, January 27, 2007

More questions than answers on the hijab debate

The most recent incident relating to hijab and schools is the case of a 12 year old girl who is not being allowed to wear a niqab in class. From what I heard, the school have conceded the argument and allowed the girl back in class because Buckinghamshire County Council, which is responsible for the school, have decided they cannot afford the £500,000 it will cost to fight the case in court. (The Sun reports it here)

This sent me scurrying around Google looking for Shamina Begum, who took Denbigh High School to court in 2004 for the right to wear a jilbab at school. The school won. It then went to appeal: Ms Begum won. Then it went to the House of Lords, and the school won. Here's a summary from Wikipedia, and another from Daniel Pipes (an American neo-con.) My abiding memory from the story at the time was the words of the Head of the school, Yasmin Bevan (now Dame Yasmin Bevan.) Herself a Muslim, she had overseen the choice of a school uniform designed to accommodate Muslim, Hindu and Sikh pupils. Her refusal to allow Shamina Begum to deviate from this was to avoid a 'hierarchy of piety' among Muslim girls. She was speaking of peer pressure among girls; this young woman speaks of more:
"My younger sisters go to Denbigh High School which was famous in the headlines last year because a girl pupil went to the High Court for her right to wear the jilbab. Shabinah saw it as a great victory for Muslim women ... but what happened next shows this is not a victory for us.

"My sisters, and me when I was younger, could always tell our dad and uncles that we weren't allowed to wear the jilbab. Once the rules were changed, that excuse was not possible any more so my sisters have now been terrified into wearing this cumbersome and dehumanising garment all day against their wishes. Now most girls in the school do the same. They don't want to, but now they cannot resist community pressure ... I am frightened somebody is going to fight for the right to wear a burqa next and then my sisters will not even be able to show their faces.
(as told to Johann Hari)
The more you read, the more complex things become. Scrutinise some of the articles and you discover that choosing the jilbab over the shalwar kameez is far more than just a matter of degrees of piety. The shalwar kameez is a form of modest dress common to many faiths. However, it is also distinctively Punjabi and is the national dress of Pakistan. So when Shamina Begum (who is of Bangladeshi descent) wanted to wear a different outfit, what was her motivation?

1) To adhere more closely to the demands of her faith? (This blog captures the depth of feeling that some Muslims have about the issue of modest dress)
2) In order to identify herself as distinctively Muslim rather than Hindu or Sikh?
3) In protest at being made to wear an outfit that she felt was not part of her cultural and ethnic heritage? (The Daily Telegraph report of the appeal proceedings explore this here)

Does it matter what the motivation is? Yes.

Situation 1) might be considered analogous to forcing Jewish children to eat non-kosher food on a school trip. I don't think anyone would approve of that.
Situation 2) might be compared with Catholic students fighting for the right to wear crucifixes to make themselves stand out from non-Catholic students. This is entirely different. Uniforms are designed to counteract exactly this kind of action.
And 3) might be like to asking English boys to wear a dhoti to school (an Indian garment a bit like a sarong). However, this is quite a bad analogy - the school uniform already incorporate non-Western garments, so the decision had already been made not to force the girls into skirts and sweatshirts. I suppose you would have to imagine English boys in school in India being asked to wear kilts. But remember that while white British people can easily separate ethnicity and religion, in other cultures the link is far deeper.

Anyway, here's an attempt at some sort of conclusion. As a person of faith myself, I respect other faiths; but you can't just sanction any behaviour under the banner of belief. Otherwise I would have to approve of Christian homophobia and war mongering. Let's hypothetically agree with all the worst interpretations of these news stories. Let's say it does boil down to adults within a Muslim community forcing their daughters to wear clothing that limits and damages them; should state schools impose rules that protect the girls from this indignity and grant them opportunities and freedoms in line with other British girls? It would seem so.

But - and this is a big but - if our aim is to ensure freedom for Muslim girls, we might need allow communities to impose whatever rules they please on their daughters if it ensures that they are educated in state schools - because the alternative, where they are withdrawn into private schools with no government control on curriculum and ethos - all for the sake of a veil - is even worse.

1 comment:

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