In November 2017, an announcement was made by Ofsted that they would be asking girls in primary school why they wear the hijab, as it could be interpreted, according to the head of Ofsted, as the sexualisation of young girls. The evidence brought forward was by a group of female campaigners who, as reported in this article, are against hijab in primary school. The response was massive. Over 1000 academics, teachers and activists signed a letter calling for Ofsted to immediately withdraw this policy and the campaign #HandsOffMuslimKids was born. Ofsted’s response was that they had a responsibility “to take seriously concerns about pressures children face in schools, and to ensure there is no detriment either to their learning or their preparation for life in modern Britain”.
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The term ‘modern Britain’, has been thrown around in education policy for some years now.
Schools must make sure that they are preparing children and young people for life in modern Britain, and this is done through the promotion of fundamental British values as well as the Prevent strategy. Both duties are intertwined to ensure that children and young people are safe from extremism and radicalisation which will supposedly prepare them for life in ‘modern Britain’. Often, the duties are seen as two separate policies, but deeper research indicates that they are inextricably linked, relying on each other for support. Both duties were enforced as a remedy to solve anxieties around British Muslims, whether it was the Trojan Horse affair or the rise in Islamist extremism amongst children and young people.
The marriage of national security and national identity has found its home in the school space which means unfortunately Muslim children and young people are under intense scrutiny.
This became even more apparent when an article in The Sunday Times reported that St Stephen’s primary school in Newham had banned the wearing of hijab for those under 8 years old, despite Newham having one of the highest Muslim populations in London. Fasting in school hours was also banned, and the logic for this according to the headteacher Neena Lall, would be to “help pupils integrate into modern British society”. This was further evidenced by the Chair of Governors, Arif Qawi who posted on Facebook in November 2017 about his “personal crusade to severely limit the Islamisation process and turn these beautiful children into modern, British citizens”.
The suggestion that these changes were needed for integration purposes is harmful and suggests that hijab and British society are incompatible. For years now, Muslim women have had to routinely defend their right to wear hijab and keep up appearances as model British citizens to refute depictions of ‘Otherness’. For Neena Lall and co, this was not an issue about sexualisation, but integration. Considering that one of the fundamental British values is ‘mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, the hypocrisy of this ban is emphasised. Identities are fluid and flexible and squeezing Muslim communities into narrow definitions of Britishness contradicts those very British values schools, like St. Stephen’s, are expected to actively promote.
Conversations do need to be had with Muslim communities around gender and society, but not through school sanctioned policies as this confuses religious identities with a lack of integration. The Casey Review attempted to make the same futile link with her assessment of Muslim communities throughout her report. A robust anti-racism curriculum and staff training is essential to grasp the complexities of living in modern Britain today. For example, Wales’ initiative to address Islamophobia in schools is much needed and must be adopted in other schools across the UK. Structural inequalities are rarely discussed in training sessions or the curriculum and by doing so, perhaps
St. Stephen’s will realise that the hijab is not a barrier to integration or feelings of ‘Britishness’ but, rather, it’s the rampant structural racism and discrimination that policies like theirs exacerbate.
Shereen Fernandez is a PhD candidate and Teaching Associate at QMUL. Prior to this, she was a primary school teacher in London. Her PhD research is looking at how schools, teachers and Muslim parents in London engage with the Prevent Duty and British values.’ - PhD researcher - School of Geography - Queen Mary University