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Quizzing schoolgirls in hijab highlights Ofsted's false morality Open in fullscreen

Ruqaya Izzidien

Quizzing schoolgirls in hijab highlights Ofsted's false morality

'How will the barometer of acceptability be set?' asks Izzidien [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 November, 2017

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Comment: Ofsted's move is not about equality for Muslim girls, but policing brown bodies; ensuring we can control Muslims in Britain, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
UK school regulator Ofsted announced this week that they will question primary school girls who wear the hijab.

Amanda Spielman, head of Ofsted and chief inspector of schools claimed that the move was a bid to tackle what could be interpreted as sexualisation of children.

While many Muslims - hijab-wearing adults included - will agree with the sentiment that children should not be wearing hijabs, Spielman's statement betrays the false morality and ignorance of Ofsted's move.

Spielman stated in her announcement that, "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 sexualisation of young girls."

These are not the actions of a group concerned with the welfare of Muslim girls.

To drag a child out in front of her peers for interrogation will not help her achieve equality. It is an act that will further alienate an already stigmatised group during crucial formative years, and promote the already prevalent message that there is something inherently wrong with the hijab. 

What does Ofsted plan on doing with their results?

Will they selectively force five-year-olds to remove their hijabs, depending on how savoury their responses are?

The hijab is always framed as exclusively sexual because of orientalist harem fetishes and Aladdin caricatures of Muslim women

What if one little girl wants to look like her mum, and another is wearing it because she has never known any different, because nobody has asked her if she wants to? How will the barometer of acceptability be set? Who will be there to ensure that the children aren't led in their answers?

And while it is true that the hijab is intended solely for women and girls who have reached puberty, it is reductive and - this many years into the hijab hysteria - frankly, boring to reduce the hijab to a symbol of sexualisation.

The hijab is always framed as exclusively sexual because of orientalist harem fetishes and Aladdin caricatures of Muslim women. A Muslim woman can be sexy or repressed, but never anything in between.

Read more: The obsession with female 'modesty' and what it tells us

There are far more profound and interesting discussions to be had about the piece of cloth that nobody seems to be able to get out of their heads. The hijab is also a sign of devotion and obedience to God. But yes, one of the functions of the hijab is to veil a woman's beauty and sexuality, and it should not be worn daily by children for this reason.

The announcement comes off the back of a recent Ofsted meeting, that was attended by Amina Lone, a former Labour party candidate, who argued that, "Covering of young girls is often the first sign of young people being treated unequally. This often leads to girls being pulled out of swimming lessons, dance classes or other creative lessons."

A Muslim woman can be sexy or repressed, but never anything in between

But the ones to bear the brunt of this move will be these young girls. In a letter to The Times earlier this year, Lone, along with 12 co-signees said of primary school-age girls in hijab, "These issues have to be understood in a global Islamic context. The covering of women is a key battleground and part of a push for systematic regressive practices of gender inequality. As women, we would legally have to cover up in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Aceh Province, in Indonesia."

But a playground in Shoreditch is hardly the place for this battle. It is unfair and misguided to draw parallels between five-year-olds in Salford and oppressive regimes thousands of miles away.

Girls in primary school face enough pressures and stigma, Muslim or not, hijab wearer or not. In primary school, I faced sexism, racism and almost daily microaggressions - often confused for the only other girl of colour. 

Nobody was worried about my sexualisation when I was the only girl in school to wear trousers instead of a summer dress because I didn't want boys looking at my legs, and rightly so. 

Getting pulled out of class for questioning on my clothes would have been mortifying and stigmatising. The practice does not liberate anyone, but perhaps makes Ofsted feel like they're doing something helpful for the brown girls? 

What this is really about, is not achieving equality for Muslim girls, but policing brown bodies; ensuring we can control Muslims in Britain.

Spielman stated that, "We would urge any parent or member of the public who has a concern about fundamentalist groups influencing school policy, or breaching equality law to make a complaint to the school. If schools do not act on these complaints they can be made to Ofsted directly."

And this is where her statement betrays the truth of its purpose. Ofsted's move is a means of policing perceived fundamentalism indicators where they don't actually exist.

It is reductive and - this many years into the hijab hysteria - frankly, boring to reduce the hijab to a symbol of sexualisation

We have witnessed this before, in the UK government's anti-radicalisation in schools guidelines, which suggest that a change of dress sense or feelings of persecution might be early indicators of radicalisation.

Children wearing the hijab habitually is the result of conflating culture and religion, with religious ignorance, not fundamentalism. 

Ofsted's move to quiz schoolgirls is not about equality for Muslims, or preventing forced covering up, it is a platform from which they deign to battle fundamentalism.

Because in today’s Britain, a hijab is a sign of Islamic fundamentalism. And Muslim children are fair game in the fight against it.


Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specializing in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 

 

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