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The M&S School Hijab Debate Is About the Dehumanisation of Muslim Communities

by in Identity on 15th October, 2018

In the cyclical world of the Islamophobic news industry, it was only a matter of time before the frenzied headlines regarding children and hijabs remerged. What instigated it in this particular instance was of course the decision of one of the UK’s largest retailers to start selling the hijab as part of their school uniform range.

Much of the backlash that followed was typical of the kind of discordant cries of the bigoted world – we saw right wing pundits employ their best faux outrage voice in apparent concern for young girls who are, it seems, being forced to wear the shackle of hijab. No, sorry it’s the fact that it’s a gendered item of clothing. Or was it the sexualisation of children. Creeping shariah?  We’re not quite sure why they’re angry, but angry they are.

As a mother of a child who attends an Islamic school which has a uniform policy that includes the hijab – and a now potential M&S customer (I can’t help but wonder if they wash well at 30…) – please excuse my total and utter disinterest in this debate. A debate that ironically is completely devoid of voices like mine.

If we want to entertain the idea that children are being forced to wear the hijab, then really we need to widen the debate to include jeans, tshirts, dresses, those annoying pompom headbands…I mean, the list is actually endless. But of course, this isn’t about children’s agency, or their economic power. All children are forced to wear all manner of ridiculous things on a daily basis. It’s only when that item of clothing belongs to the Muslim community that we are suddenly and unwittingly entering the muddied waters of debate concerning children rights and clothing. That oft-covered topic amongst the political right. When it’s an item of clothing that belongs to one of the most beleaguered and vilified communities in the UK then it must be of nefarious intent. The fact that the debate is even framed this way is indicative of how disingenuine it is.  As mothers of school children across the world know, it is virtually impossible to force your child into any garment they have an aversion to. Believe me I tried the time I spent £30 on a utility style jumpsuit from Zara Kids.

So perhaps it’s because the hijab is a gender specific item, therefore perpetuating normative gender stereotypes, and reducing girls to their biological function, yada yada yada. I remember reading a non-existent article regarding the Sikh turban or Jewish kippah, which was equally strong in its condemnation of gender specific items.

Which brings us to strand three of this increasingly confused chorus of bigotry, the sexualisation of children. Ah, that old chestnut. The hijab of course forces girls to feel the weight of their gender before they’re able to understand it. Just like the, er, mini skirt? Or the plethora of navy blue children’s t-shirt with hypermasculine and ridiculous slogans plastered across them.

You always get a few dears that like to add the issue of utility and comfort in the mix. If clothing was ever about either of those things, you would never see the unbridled joy of a woman when she discovers a dress with pockets. We’ve all been there.

The one thing that unites these, often conflicting, lines of argument, is of course bigotry. To borrow an M&S strapline, this isn’t just any type of bigotry. This is Islamophobic bigotry.

In essence we are talking about a strip of cloth. Like all items of clothing, we attach the cultural significance or social weight to the many types of cloths we use to cover our bodies in a number of arbitrary ways. This continual rhetoric is not an attack on hijab, this is an attack on the values that underpin the hijab. As the National Union of Teachers unequivocally expressed, their experience with children on the front line demonstrates that children that wear the hijab (and by ‘wear’ I mean throw it on in the morning and hope it’s not lost by the afternoon…) do so because their mum or other family members do. Why is this simple and most obvious fact of human nature – that a child will naturally imitate their parents or immediate family – so easily overlooked? Perhaps it’s because of the consistent dehumanisation of Muslim communities. We cannot stretch our mind to encompass this most basic of facts. This process of dehumanisation of the muslim community is evident in all facets of public life.  The fact that we consider violent, politically motivated crimes against white majority communities a form of ‘terrorism’ but never the other way round is because we are negating and delegitimising the experience of marginalised communities – as a society we don’t perceive them as capable of feeling terror.

My daughter began articulating her love of the hijab almost as soon as she could speak. She would choose to drape my hijab around her head and prance around the house playing ‘grown up’. Much in the same way that a child from another background might imitate her mother applying lipstick, my daughter always mimicked the way I wrap my scarf around my head, and pinned it under my chin. As she grew older she became more vocal about wanting to wear the hijab outside of the house. I have always been hesitant to allow her to do so, to this day – more often than not I have prevented her from leaving the house with it (I type this at the risk of evoking the wrath of the growing number of far-right children’s rights activists who have expressed such noble outrage at the thought of a child not having their own sartorial choice). I do this because the idea that hijab is an object of oppression is so pervasive that I fear she will see the physical manifestation of those thousands of column inches written on the hijab.

We continually obsess over a communities or individual’s decision to define the boundaries of modesty in the same way women’s bodies become the site for larger social anxieties while male bodies, and male decisions go unexamined. The Muslim community as ‘other’ is picked apart, dissected, scrutinised while the monoculture of liberal, western Imperialism continues to exist, without investigation.

It is only natural for a community to want to pass on their values to their young, this is only controversial when those values aren’t part of dominant, liberal, western ideals – as though secular belief is the default and not just one of the many world views that make up our globe. In a post-Brexit and Trump world, surely this Whiggish rationale is unanimously discredited.

The values regarding modesty and dignity that I may choose to pass onto my daughter by buying her a hijab are subject to untold scrutiny, by hundreds of, mostly, white men while the values that those men hold dear are passed for the norm or default in morality. My voice regarding my decision for my child will be ignored, shouted over, ridiculed and silenced.

The M&S range is a uniform range, and school uniforms express the values that their schools and communities wish to uphold. For schools like my daughters’ that means championing a type of modesty that includes the hijab. For me this is a beautiful and wholesome thing and I am happy for her to wear it at school, and to discover a sense of pride and beauty in it. The hijab, as ugly and cumbersome as it may appear to some, is a beloved symbol and item of clothing in Islam. It is something I want my child to experience before she has a chance to internalise the web of hate that surrounds it.

The issue of children wearing hijab has a peculiar capacity to unleash everyone’s inner bigot, sometimes those within the Muslim community too. It brings to the surface deep seated prejudices concerning the hijab and becomes a legitimate arena by which to attack the it more widely – while detractors of the hijab are often unable to express their frustration in the face of a woman who chooses to wear the hijab with full agency, they feel vindicated when they are confronted with the prospect of a child in head covering. It speaks of our total inability to conceive of a woman as anything other than a receptacle for male desire. As a society we do not truly believe anyone would choose to privatise their beauty, and therefore the rhetoric concerning hijab becomes inextricable with the theme of coercion and oppression. When closeted and out and proud Islamophobes are given the opportunity to employ these rhetorical tools in a debate concerning children, they are usually frothing at the mouth.

The muslim community in particular needs to play a part in this debate by refusing to adopt an apologist tone. No, children are absolutely not mandated to wear the hijab, but as most muslims will know, it is absolutely normal for a child to want to wear the hijab as dress up. In continually apologising for this fact we are complicit in creating a discursive environment in which the hijab is seen as a shameful thing.

So to be clear – I’m not forcing my child to wear hijab against her will, though I do still occasionally have a go at the utility suit, I am not sexualising her, for that I’d enter her into the many, legal beauty pageants that exist across the UK and no, Brenda, it’s not uncomfortable or hot under there, any more than her cardigan which she’s also at equal liberty to take off when she pleases.

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya bint Rehan

Mariya is a 33-year-old mother of two young girls with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally and in the UK. IG: @muswellbooks