In the past week the ‘issue’ of primary school age Muslim girls wearing hijab to school has been on the front pages of some newspapers as the chief inspector of schools announced that her inspectors would be asking young girls they saw in headscarves why they were wearing it, supposedly in case girls were being ‘sexualised’ by wearing a garment believed to be intended to hide potentially sexually arousing things from men. The claim that this is the intention or the effect of hijab has been floating around on Twitter for some time but has gone mainstream in the last few months, perhaps because the country’s white busybodies need some other excuse to interfere in the way minorities raise their children since the wheels fell off the FGM bandwagon (, ) a couple of months back. A common claim is that hijab is “not even mandatory until puberty” in Islam, but there is more to why women and girls wear the hijab than this. (More: Abdul-Azim Ahmed, The Muslimah Diaries, Amanda Morris on FB, MCB with 100 Muslim women’s views, Aisha Gani @ Buzzfeed.)
First: the age of puberty for girls is menarche, or their first period, or (according to most scholars) the age of 15, whichever comes first. It’s entirely possible that a girl would have reached puberty before leaving primary school, especially if (though this is not common in the UK although it is in other countries) she has been held back a year. As the age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10, surely we can all be familiar with the concept of a child of 10 having personal obligations. If something is compulsory for an older child and an adult, it makes all sense for them to be accustomed to doing it before it becomes mandatory. As parents Muslims are told to make sure our children pray before they reach puberty, for the same reason, but we also do not want our daughters suddenly going into school in hijab one random day when they’re 14 and in a mixed school where everyone who knows a little bit about Islam will know why. A blogger I once knew who lived in Saudi Arabia said that this was quite common with niqaab there — a girl would wear a headscarf from much younger but when you see her in niqaab you know she is now “a young lady” — but Saudi Arabia is a different society to ours.
Second, children copy their elders and the elders of young Muslim girls are older Muslim girls and women. Kids like to be grown up and, the older they get, the more they want to do what bigger people do and the more they resent reminders that they are children. The idea that there is a reason related to sex for why they have to cover their hair does not occur to them. If they indeed have to, it’s because “mama said so”. This is the usual reason why children have to do anything, after all; why they have to go to this school or that school, or wear this or that item of clothing, or eat whatever their parents choose to make for dinner even if they do not like it. Some parents of my acquaintance also find that the headscarf protects their daughter from headlice, which is more important when children are primary school age, not less. Hijabs as worn by young girls are not normally long black cloaks as found in places like Iran or Saudi Arabia, but bright scarves with embroidery that just cover the hair and shoulders. They wear their normal clothes otherwise, and at school they wear uniform. No girl wears a niqaab before puberty and it’s rare for them to wear it at high school age in western countries.
Third, the argument about ‘sexualisation’ is spurious and a perversion of a real issue. Clothing that ‘sexualises’ children is what displays too much flesh, or does so too tightly, or ‘matures’ a prepubescent girl (e.g. with a push-up bra) or produces a look associated with the likes of strippers, ‘exotic’ dancers or prostitutes. Such clothing is usually marketed to girls approaching their teens and this is what causes concern; that it encourages girls who are not yet even at puberty to prepare to sexualise their normal clothing, to put their bodies on display for men. Hijab does the opposite of this and accustoms them to dressing respectably, which brings us onto the rationale for hijab.
It is a myth that Islam portrays women as temptresses and men as slaves to their own sexual desires which the hijab is intended to protect them from. The reason is in fact spelled out in the Qur’an: “so that they be known and not harassed”, i.e. seen as Godfearing and respectable women. For the most part, we do not probe too deeply into the wisdom behind the laws of Islam; it is enough for us to know that Allah and His Messenger have told us to do something or not to do something, and we obey for the pleasure of Allah and this is true in the case of hijab as well but in this case a reason has been made plain to us. Shari’ah law in this instance works by “blocking the means” to what is forbidden, and this is not just unlawful sex but unlawful dalliances. Physical contact is forbidden between men and women other than spouses and close relatives, as is chit-chat beyond what is necessary. It safeguards marriages and reputations and promotes social harmony. Hijab is not meant to restrict women, and does not. It is men and, increasingly, hostile women who do that.
The letter to the Times (also here) by a well-known group of unrepresentative Asian secularists contains a serious inaccuracy: the claim that India and Tunisia “are fighting back against male-dominated orthodoxies and protecting women’s rights against cultural and ultra-conservative religious practices”; one of these is ruled by a party which oversaw a pogrom in which thousands of women were raped (among other atrocities) while the present prime minister was a provincial governor, and only this year a Muslim woman who had converted from Hinduism was prevented from living with her husband because the judge accepted arguments that she had been the ‘victim’ of a so-called “love jihad”; the other was ruled by a dictatorship for decades until only six years ago which suppressed the practice of Islam and used a secret police to terrorise the population. How on earth can such countries be regarded as models of progress for Muslim women, or indeed anyone?
This group of women have media connections but these are not matched by support within the Muslim community itself. It speaks volumes that they addressed their letter to a newspaper with a history of dishonest, sensationalist and intrusive stories about Muslims and, to be fair, other groups in society. Several of the group of women are already notorious for agitating against the Shari’ah and none of them wear hijaab; the question of why any Muslim would approach such a newspaper to orchestrate a campaign that would make life for Muslim women and girls who observe their deen more difficult and unpleasant or make said observances unnatural really needs answering. They bleat on about “equal rights for females” but there is no contradiction between that and being allowed to wear a headscarf to school; everyone with any experience of education in the Global South knows that educating women and girls is vital and this can be achieved whatever clothes a girl wears. Look at the young lady who won the individual debating prize at Eton College this year — Selina Begum, a 16-year old Muslim girl from a state school in Newham, east London, who wears hijab, competing against the rich, confident, entitled boys from David Cameron’s and Prince William’s old school.
It is incumbent on Muslims, especially Muslim parents, to contact Ofsted to explain to them why some of us dress our young girls in the headscarf (MPACUK have an action alert on this; there is also an open letter we can sign). It’s not because it’s mandatory for them (it’s not); it’s not because we regard them or their hair as sexual temptations for grown men (we don’t). It’s because it’s the dress of a Muslim woman and we get them used to dressing like one because that is what they become.
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