By Iman Amrani
2 Feb 2018
Just when I was thinking I hadn’t seen much hysteria around Muslims in the media recently, the argument around the hijab flared up again. Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman came out in support of a head-teacher who banned young Muslim girls from wearing the hijab at school. Minority communities feel alternately ignored and targeted by Ofsted. Fear and distrust is pervasive and well founded – only this week police confirmed that there were 1,487 crimes with a hate element at or near schools and colleges in the past two years.
Spielman’s use of the term “British values” in her speech to a Church of England schools conference is likely to put people’s backs up further. This isn’t a term that I would associate with someone who cares about cohesion. Her comments about Muslims using “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” seem more likely to divide people than bring them together. But it would be dangerous to respond to Spielman’s provocation by defending the idea that children should be allowed to wear headscarves. I feel uncomfortable every time I see well-meaning people defending parents’ right to send young girls to school wearing the hijab.
My parents sent me to a Saturday madrasa where we learned Qur’an and Islamic teachings. Boys and girls were taught separately, and the girls wore headscarves. I remember wanting to get one of the elasticated, one-piece Hijabs that you could slip on and off like a hood because I was scared of getting pricked by the needle with the traditional scarves. The rest of the week I didn’t wear a scarf, I just went to my normal state school where classes were mixed and the uniform was red. No one wore a headscarf until we got to secondary school.
My school had a mix of nationalities and faiths, including a small community of Plymouth Brethren. The children from this conservative, evangelical Christian movement dressed like miniature versions of their parents. The girls wore long dresses and were not allowed to cut their hair, which they wore in thick braids, topped with small headscarves. They weren’t allowed to watch TV, even educational videos, and had to leave assemblies when we sang songs.
I felt a twinge of understanding of those girls because I had to wear my headscarf on weekends. Honestly, I hated it. It messed my hair up, made me uncomfortable and I would tear it off as soon as I got in the car because I didn’t want white kids from my school to see me in it and ask questions.
I do understand why my parents put me and my siblings through that though. They were trying to instil an idea of our identity in us, so we would meet other young Muslims and be part of a wider community. I frequently draw on things that I learned at Islamic school and it was also there that I learned that Muslim girls didn’t actually have to wear the hijab, at least not until puberty. I’ve written in defence of the hijab and the burkini and stand by everything I have said. The policing of Muslim women’s clothes is used to attack minority communities already at risk of being alienated by the mainstream. Most Muslims I grew up with would agree that this is when a girl starts her periods. Even then, many families encourage their daughters to take their time before making the choice to wear the hijab.
But while I agree with Spielman that children under eight should not wear the hijab, I also recognise the fear that this is just another way of policing a minority community. The language that Spielman uses feels provocative as she lumps the hijab together with sexualisation. Many parents wouldn’t want someone with so little sensitivity to be allowed to question older girls about wearing the hijab, as Spielman suggested Ofsted inspectors would do at the end of last year. People worry that these rules are just the beginning, that they could be applied to older Muslim girls who have made the choice to wear the hijab. This would be wrong. While young children shouldn’t have to make a choice, women should be free to. If Spielman really cares about the young girls that she speaks of, she should try reassuring communities that she wishes to work with them instead of stigmatising them. Little girls don’t deserve to be symbols in a struggle over “British values”.
• Iman Amrani is a Guardian multimedia journalist