Honi soit qui mal y pense

The British royal coat of arms, containing a gold shield showing emblems of all four nations of the UK, with a lion to the left, a white horse to the right, and the garter emblem around it with the slogan 'Honi soit qui mal y pense'.Outcry over sexualised hijab schoolgirl (from The Australian)

Honi soit qui mal y pense is a Norman French phrase, meaning “shame on he who thinks ill of it”. It appears on the British royal garter, which is the emblem of the Order of the Garter, an order of ‘knights’ which currently includes various royals and various pillars of the Establishment, plus various foreign rulers appointed by the Queen (I recall the appointment of the Japanese Emperor Akihito caused a rumpus a few years ago; his father Hirohito had been removed from it at the outbreak of the Second World War). One theory of the slogan’s origin is that when King Edward III was dancing with his cousin at a court function, her garter slipped down causing those present to snigger; the king then placed the garter round his own leg and used the phrase: shame on whomever thinks ill of it.

The phrase sprang to mind when reading the above report, in which a number of so-called Muslim feminists took umbrage at the use of a picture of a young Muslim girl in a hijab-like headscarf in a road safety guide for children originally commissioned by the former mayor, Boris Johnson, after the Times brought them to the attention of the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, who the story claims apologised and said that Transport for London would no longer be using the book. The book actually seems to contain various drawings of children of both sexes and different skin colours and ethnic appearance, one of them an Asian girl called Razmi who is wearing a red jumper, a blue pair of trousers and a yellow scarf over her head. I haven’t seen the book. Maybe it does contain a lecture to little girls about the importance of modesty and helping men control their sexual urges. Maybe it just has one child among many others wearing a scarf, which is popular among a particular religious community, to illustrate points about road safety.

The facts about young girls and hijab are these: some families where the women (and ‘adulthood’ for religious purposes, e.g. it being personally obligatory to pray, means puberty, usually in the form of menarche for girls) wear the headscarf, buy little headscarves for little girls which they wear sometimes when out and, usually, when at religious education classes. It’s not obligatory, because nothing is for a child in Islam. You don’t have to buy a specific type of scarf, but you can get some quite pretty purpose-made ones made of a jersey material with a sort of flowery headband. They serve a number of purposes: sometimes a girl wants to dress like her big sisters or older cousins; it also helps to get them used to dressing that way for when it becomes an obligation. They are usually not the very plain or long black ones worn by the very strict women; there is certainly no need for that, and no justification for having very young girls wear niqaab.

It’s ridiculous that anyone believes that the intention of giving young girls headscarves to wear “sexualises” them or is intended to. Actually, I don’t recall anyone talking about it in this way until after non-Muslims started using the phrase to describe the sexualised clothing marketed to pre-teen girls or, more recently, the new habit of having girls wear shorts under dresses “just in case the boys see their knickers”, when the real fear may be that paedophiles may be looking at (or photographing) them. So, the Times went to a bunch of “Muslim feminist” campaigners, namely Gina Khan, Shaista Gohir and one Aisha Ali-Khan, whom I’ve never heard of before, all of whom issued a denunciation of the book, with the last claiming that the “hijab is a Saudi-isation of British Muslim identity”, a ridiculous claim (Saudi women wear black headscarves and abayas, not colourful scarves) which uses the logic of the tyrant throughout the ages, denouncing a trend they do not like as foreign.

A drawing of two girls, one of Asian appearance wearing a red jumper, a blue pair of trousers and a yellow headscarf, and a Chinese girl wearing a green dress with flowers on.Admittedly, if the girl is always shown wearing the scarf, this is inaccurate as a portrayal of a Muslim girl that age; she would not always wear it when out (much less when in the home of female friends), just some of the time, but maybe they just wanted to be consistent (how much do the other characters vary their clothes?). But let’s not forget why a newspaper with a long history of anti-Muslim agitation would object to a pretty picture of a girl in a hijab in a book; they just do not want to see Muslims, much less anyone of distinctive Muslim appearance, in public life at all. It would take a very dirty mind to see anything sexual in a little girl wearing a yellow scarf over her head. The shame is on you if you think like that: honi soit qui mal y pense. Hijab is just part of what a lot of practising Muslim women and girls wear every day; it was not always a “symbol of Islam”, but became one when other women stopped wearing it and secularist governments in the Muslim world sought to suppress it. Don’t pretend you care about Muslim girls better than their families do; you just want to see them, and us, disappear.

Image source: Sodacan - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.

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