By a London teacher
The recent decision by an East London primary school to ban pupils from wearing the hijab shows how Islamophobia subjects Muslim women to a double dose of racism and sexism.
Although protests forced the school to reverse the ban, this is not an isolated attempt to single out Muslims for discrimination against religious expression. This is a textbook example of how Islamophobia normalises a specific form of racist discrimination.
The excuses for banning the Muslim hijab given by the school and its supporters in Ofsted and the government, were that as a symbol of “female modesty” it is oppressive to girls, especially if their families pressure them into wearing it.
The vast majority of Muslim women are no more “forced” to wear the hijab than non-Muslim women are “forced” by their parents to dress “modestly” on nights out, or in reverse, pressured by sexist social norms to wear “provocative” or revealing clothing.
Of course we want schools to be places where young people can learn and express themselves free of the patriarchal pressure of family life. But the question is can the state or the school liberate Muslim girls by forcing them not to wear it?
Banning them from wearing it is not liberation but another from of coercion. Religious and cultural beliefs – whether originating from children or their parents cannot be changed by state bans and constitute a form of oppression in itself.
Uniform policies and dress codes – insofar as they have any educational or equalities merits, which is questionable – have to allow those forced to wear them to express their identity or beliefs without facing discrimination, punishment or exclusion.
There are signs too that many see it as an affirmation of community pride in a society where that community is under attack.
By targeting young British Muslims as especially prone to “extremism” or, indeed “sexualisation”, supporters of the ban are reinforcing their fears that they are outsiders, excluded from the mainstream.
Like all religious persecution, bans and singling out certain religions for persecution only strengthens the influence of the clerics and the family.
Socialists want to combat the reactionary role played by religious organisations in promoting sexist ideas. But we do that by demonstrating that working class organisation, socialist politics and internationalism, is a surer way of fighting the alienation and oppression in society than religion.
Making schools do the dirty work of the British state in its attempts to harass and forcibly “integrate” Muslims is a very bad idea.
How did the authorities react to the ban? Universally they disgraced themselves.
The Department for Education hid behind a “colour blind” liberalism that “it is a matter for individual schools to… set uniform policies”, carefully sidestepping the real issue: do schools have the right to set racist policies?
But the untimely intervention of Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman is more worrying. She chose a Church of England conference (St Stephens is a church school) to issue a call for “muscular liberalism”.
Spielman labeled those who objected to the St Stephens ban as “vocal parental minorities” (19,000 of them?) who wanted to “pressure other parents and children to act or dress against their wishes”; introducing a fictional suggestion that there was a campaign to force other Muslim parents to adopt the hijab.
The Tory-appointed chief inspector declared that “Ofsted will always back heads” who want to ban the hijab in the future. The parents of girls who wear the hijab, according to Spielman, “want to actively pervert the purpose of education”:
“Under the pretext of religious belief, they use education institutions, legal and illegal, to narrow young people’s horizons, to isolate and segregate, and in the worst cases to indoctrinate impressionable minds with extremist ideology.”
We are now entering the territory of anti-Islamic extremist fantasy. There is no conspiracy among Britain’s million-strong Muslim community to take over schools, indoctrinate children and recruit them to terrorist organisations.
Teachers, parents and students can only draw one conclusion from this. Sack Spielman now before she does serious damage. Reversing this ban is a signal victory for democrats and anti-racists everywhere. Everyone should have the right to wear whatever items of clothing they want so long as it does not endanger themselves or others.