BBC Radio 4’s ‘Too Young to Veil?’ examines controversy around primary school age girls wearing the hijab

In a BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘Too Young to Veil?’, Shaimaa Khalil discusses the rising trend in the UK of primary school girls wearing the hijab, whether there is a need for concern about this, and who, if anyone, has the right to decide what young girls wear.

The Programme

It is not known how many primary school age girls actually wear the hijab, but Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, a research fellow at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, says that qualitative research shows there has been an increase in the numbers who do so, and people who have recently migrated to the UK from Muslim countries are surprised by this when they arrive here. She says there are a number of reasons why young girls wear it, including the influence of role models, religious institutions they attend, and parents.

The wearing of the hijab in state primary schools, and whether the aims of mosques and Muslim advocacy organisations involved in the debate are sinister, has become an issue of debate in the UK, amid the backdrop of concern about rising Islamophobia in British society. The debate is sociological, philosophical, and theological, multi-layered and multi-faceted.

Amina Lone was one of those who co-signed a letter to the Secretary of State for Education in September 2017, voicing concern about girls as young as four years old wearing the hijab. The letter was published in a newspaper and publicised the debate. Lone says that the group wanted to bring attention to the issue because the rising number of young girls wearing hijabs is a controversial issue for British identity and gender equality, as the principle behind this trend is that young girls are viewed as sexualised. It also sends a troubling message to boys that girls should be covered up.

But the Director of Newham’s Muslim Women’s Association, who is a mum of two girls, refutes the argument that the hijab sexualises young girls, saying that it is about expressing identities and copying role models. She argues that preventing girls wearing it is not helpful. She says those on the other side of the argument are not willing to listen to the voices of those who wear the hijab, yet claim that they are trying to liberate those who do.

The debate became more heated last year when Ofsted announced they would started questioning primary school aged girls wearing the hijab, which some see as a direct attack on Muslim women. Head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, said that the aim of the measures was to listen to concerns about parents influencing their daughters’ wearing of the hijab. She denied that Ofsted was singling out Muslim children, saying that Ofsted would be talking to mixed groups of children as part of the measures.

Spielman said that the wearing of hijabs by young girls could be considered a cause for concern because the hijab is not a religious requirement, but a cultural factor, and it is not possible for schools in British society to accommodate every cultural requirement.

She says that cases regarding the hijab in school uniform policies are putting immense pressure on individual headteachers who are made the subjects of campaigns by national networks. She thinks this is unfair on headteachers, suggesting that in the future, uniform policies may be regulated by the government. This would involve other government departments, as Ofsted only inspects and reports on schools. The Department for Education would not comment on this, but they referred to their best practice guidance for schools considering this issue. This emphasises the need to consult with parents.

The programme covers the example of St Stephens School in Newham, London, which is one of the best performing schools in the country, but was caught up in controversy in January after its ban on the wearing of the hijab by girls under eight gained publicity. Some parents felt the ban took choices regarding their own children away from them and labelled them as extremists, and comments from the headteacher linking the ban with promoting integration into British culture called into question the school’s justification for the ban as a health and safety measure.

A parents’ forum was started to campaign against the ban and 19,000 people signed an online petition against it. The Muslim advocacy organisation Mend also joined the debate. The organisation had previously been contacted by the father of a five year old pupil at St Stephens who had been asked to remove her hijab in the playground. The father said that his daughter chose to wear the hijab because she saw her mother and aunts wearing it, illustrating that wearing the hijab is not just about religious or cultural obligation, but about the expression of religious freedom and wearing what makes them feel comfortable. Mend states Sikh and Jewish boys at St Stephens are allowed to wear religious headwear, and thus the same allowances and considerations must be made for Muslim school girls.

The school also received international criticism and abuse. The ban was reversed at the end of January and the chair of governors, Arif Qawi, stepped down (he had sent an offensive email about the local imam). On the programme, Qawi says only four or five girls were affected by the ban, which had been in place for four months before the backlash against it became public. He estimates that less than 10% of parents at the school did not support it but became the most vocal in the situation, which he says is common for the most extreme party in debates.

Qawi says the abuse received by the school was orchestrated, that Mend and local imams were trying to influence the debate, and that the headteacher had previously experienced pressure from the local mosque over the school’s uniform policy. He said it was sad that the fantastic reputation of the school got lost in the debate.

Khalil spoke to the imam at a local faith school whose uniform policy states that girls have to have their hair and body covered. The imam says this is because the school wants to instil modesty in children as this is what Islam teaches, although this is not a requirement. He refutes that he pressured St Stephens regarding their uniform policy, and that his school’s ideas are extreme, but he adds that he was not convinced by the health and safety reasoning for the ban given by St Stephens, speculating that it could have been used as an excuse for the ban.

The programme sent a survey to primary school heads across the UK to ask about their policy on hijabs. Some reported that their schools were not opposed to girls wearing them if it matched school colours. Other said they were not opposed to it if it did not jeopardize health and safety. However, some said that they did not allow their younger girls to wear them.

One headteacher of a London primary school, who wished to remain anonymous, said that her school would be introducing a ban on hijabs for its younger children. She says that religious tension is always an issue in schools, and current concern seems to focus on Muslims, so it is important for her to be informed about the issue and to make sure that those affected also understand it. She will sit down with Muslim parents, and especially the more conservative ones, to discuss the policy with them. She says that the hijab is viewed as necessary for modesty, then children who have not yet reached puberty should not have to wear it. But she says that the internet means that reactions to these policies can be mobilised quickly and can be intense. A counter-narrative is needed to stand against this, and the headteacher says it’s important she sticks to her decisions.

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, headteacher of Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham, says that this issue should not only be seen through a religious lens. The equality of genders is incredibly important in her school, and she says that the wearing of the hijab does not reflect this because it is only directed towards girls. However, her school does not have a policy regarding the wearing of the hijab. Hewitt-Clarkson says, because inequality permeates culture and society, it is unfair just to pick on the issue of hijabs when there are other related issues in schools, such as sexual harassment, that must also be dealt with. The issue needs to be looked at across the board.

She says it is also important to consider what she would have to do if a hijab ban were introduced and a pupil broke the rules. She would have to take the hijab off the pupil or send the pupil home, and would not be comfortable being doing either.

Anderton Park Primary School was inspected as part of the 2014 Trojan Horse scandal and Hewitt-Clarkson had to fight hard against a group of local men who wanted to dominate what was happening in the school, including whether students should be allowed to study Shakespeare or not. Dame Louise Casey, former government integration tsar, believes that the current debate about the wearing of hijabs in schools in linked to the continued influence of Muslim hardliners like this in some communities.

Last year, Casey joined debate after a Birmingham councillor put pressure on St Marys Catholic Primary School to change its uniform policy when his four year old niece was prevented from wearing a hijab. Speaking on the programme, she said she felt despair because uniform policy is set by the head teacher and school government, yet male misogyny were getting involved in issues like this in an attempt to prove themselves to the community. Casey wrote to the council demanding action on interference. Her view is if a four year old is wearing a hijab, there has to be another dimension involved other than just choice, such as a community dynamic. At its best, he says this community dynamic might influence a primary-school age girl to wear a hijab, but at its worse, this community dynamic is what was seen in the Trojan Horse scandal.

The programme got a hold of some materials found in state schools that appear to reflect this. One of these was a book entitled, Women Who Deserve to Go to Hell, which says that women who do not wear the veil will not go to paradise. Most of these materials are printed outside the UK in places like Saudi Arabia, and campaigners like Amina Lone say this shows the influence of Saudi-backed groups exerting influence in British state schools and perhaps driving younger girls to veil. Lone says that money comes into the country and is pushed into local level religious and community institutions, which then advice and counsel individuals and families to adhere to conservative religious ideas counter to British values in a secular democracy.

But Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor thinks these fears are outdated. Research indicates that, while there was an influence of Salafi and Wahhabi voices in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which indicated the hardening of attitudes towards gender and the hijab, individual people are now moving away from this, although some influence still persists.

Instead, Dr Cheruvallil-Contractor says that in order to understand why young Muslim girls are covering, we have to look more broadly at how Muslim women are expressing their faith and identity. She notes that 9/11 was a catalyst for bringing Muslims to the forefront of Muslim and non-Muslim minds. Young Muslims, most born after this, question what their faith is about and their part in it, and for some, wearing hijab is a form of engagement with their faith. Adding to this catalyst is a localised form of Islam in Britain, which speaks to British values and the formation of British citizens, but also about confidently being Muslim.

Khalil notes that this is an interesting thing about the debate around primary-school age girls wearing the hijab; both sides claim the same reason for their argument, that it is about defending British values, demonstrating the many ways in which British values are interpreted.

The Director of Newham’s Muslim Women’s Association says that British values are about tolerating and respecting one another’s faith and views. She says that institutions (like Ofsted) are hypocritical in preaching these values because this debate has shown that they do not practice them.

Amanda Spielman frames British values in terms of ‘muscular liberalism’. She says this involves “actually living the British values of democracy, rule of law, tolerance, pluralism, and being willing to defend them; making the case for why they’re really important and that we mustn’t tolerate intolerance because we can, by accident, use tolerance to accommodate intolerance. And that’s the failure of liberalism if we allow it to become a vehicle for importing intolerance”.

Dr Cheruvallil-Contractor says that different groups want to claim authority over British values and the debate around young girls wearing hijabs is rooted in this. The far-right attempt to claim this authority in order to inform anti-immigrant policy and rhetoric. Muslim voices attempt to claim it to discuss shared values and histories. The debate is ongoing, and will not be answered quickly.

Khalil concludes that there is no one answer as to why young British Muslims girls are wearing the hijab. For some it is about the expression of religious and cultural identity, for some it is a sign of confidence or conservatism, for some it is about power play in the community, and for some it is about following their role models.

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson concludes by saying that this debate is for adults not for children, and so this should not be made an issues in schools, which should be places of “absolute, unconditional welcome”.

Children still get caught up in the arguments, however. The programme ends with ten year-old Sadia reading a letter to Ofsted;

“Dear Ofsted,

“A while back my dad asked me whether I felt forced to wear my scarf. Was this some sort of dumb dad riddle? I looked at him perplexed. Then he told me it was on a twitter conversation with some people who thought that young Muslim girls were being forced to wear hijab. They also thought that it was inappropriate for young girls to wear scarves. Apparently Dad told them that his young daughter wears it by choice. Dad still needed reassurance from me, of course, just to check according to him. I told him clearly it was my choice.

“Some days later he told me that the same people had persuaded you to ask five year old Muslim girls that whether they are forced to wear hijab, as if they can answer properly. In our RE class we learned that some Sikh boys wear turbans and some Jewish boys were kippah and some Christian people wear cross necklaces and bracelets. If you went to a bunch of kids and pick only on Muslim girls to explain why they wear hijab, they’ll be discombobulated and feel worse than others.”

As Khalil says, ‘discombobulated’ describes many people’s reactions to this sensitive debate. She concludes that surely everyone can agree on one thing, “we are the grown-ups, surely it is our job to protect the children”.

The Wider Debate

There has does not appear to have been much online reaction to this programme. We have been covering this debate as it has unfolded.

Check out our coverage of Ofsted’s decision to question primary school girls wearing the hijab here. A UK teacher’s union has voted to challenge this. They have been widely criticised for targeting the Muslim community through their counter-extremism efforts.

The hijab ban at St Stephens Primary School, and its wider significance to the British Muslim community, has been controversially discussed in a Channel 4 Dispatches programme, ‘Who Speaks for British Muslims’, a Spectator article, and by the columnist Nick Cohen on BBC Radio 4.

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BBC Radio 4. (2018) ‘Analysis: Too Young to Veil?’ [online] 24 April. [Accessed 7 May 2018].