We live in an age when most ‘right thinking’ people – at the BBC, in medicine, education and the Church of England – are letting the concept of gender disappear; our more progressive universities dropping the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ in favour of the inclusive ‘they’. That may seems strange to some but it’s surely even stranger that at the same time, increasing numbers of very young girls are going around clad in medieval costume designed to conceal them because of their gender. Female children, way below puberty, can now be seen all over the UK with their sticklike limbs and tiny heads completely covered, for the sole reason that they are girls.
The hijab spells out clearly that for Muslim females from the age of five upwards their gender is the most determining aspect of their lives. Being female will define who they are and what they do as decidedly as a profound disability. Thirty years ago I saw these bundled up little mites when I first moved to London. I was fascinated and appalled, but there were so few of them that I put it down to a rare kind of religious extremism in their parents, soon to be eradicated by British education. How wrong I was. In a survey published in the Sunday Times last weekend, a fifth of 800 UK primary schools listed the hijab as part of their uniform policy. Thirty-four per cent of primary schools in Tower Hamlets, East London, listed a headscarf on their website. In Luton the figure was 36 per cent.
The hijab and burka signal that a woman or girl, no matter how young, is above all a sexual being either securely owned by her father, husband and brother or if not, then freely available for rape. The veil signifies that she has no sexual autonomy. In the West, young children are seen essentially as neuter, considered sexually unavailable and protected by the law. There is no reason why any girl under the age of puberty should have to cover herself. Many Muslims living here understand that.
Following the Sunday Times report, Muslim politician Amina Lone, co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation, who supported Sarah Champion MP after she was sacked by Jeremy Corbyn, told the press, ‘In an Islamic context, the hijab is commonly understood as being for females after they reach the age of puberty. There are very few Muslims who would say a child should be covered.’ Gina Khan, a children’s rights campaigner who speaks for ‘One Law For All’ which rejects Sharia Law, sees the hijab, an adult garment, as sexualising younger girls forced to wear it.
The education watchdog Ofsted has recently said there is ‘growing concern’ about youngsters wearing the hijab, and they are investigating whether schools have been pressured into adding the item to their uniform list. Of course they are, not only by extremist Muslims but by a British establishment determined to appease them. Khan told the Sunday Times that schools are listing the garment as uniform ‘because they are afraid of being called Islamophobic and they have been told that this is a religious garment’. She wants Muslim girls ‘to have free choices, not to be set apart from other children.’
It should be possible for schools to oppose the imposition of shrouding girls on grounds of health. You don’t have to be Islamophobic to wonder how Allah, the all-knowing, got it so wrong, or did he really want girls and women to be vitamin-deficient? The covered girl child, unlike her brother who is free to bare his arms and legs in the sunshine, is denied sunlight on the skin and thus essential Vitamin D. In 2012 a Canadian survey found bone and muscle weakness in veiled women living in equatorial climates. Those in the northern, maritime climate were further disadvantaged compared with women wearing Western clothes. It was suggested that they should be given vitamin supplements. A study carried out on 6,540 people in sunny Jordan the same year, posted on an Islamic website, found that women who wear the hijab or niqab are more likely to have low levels of vitamin D than those who do not cover their heads. The lower rate of vitamin D was 36.5 per cent among women wearing the niqab, 37.9 per cent among women wearing the hijab, and 29.5 per cent among women who do not wear any head covering.
I see the hijab on infant girls all the time now and feel disgust, not about the religious belief behind it, but the sheer ignorance of that community. I glare at grannies and mothers accompanied by little girls with their limbs totally covered. No doubt they think I’m an ‘Islamaphobe’, but if we could speak the same language I would tell them that what I hate is seeing a form of child abuse. In London, I once asked my GP, a secular Indian, whether he ever mentioned the vitamin problem to Muslim women in his consulting room. ‘That’s not my job,’ he said with a wary smile. Muslim women are being issued with vitamin supplements on the NHS, especially when breast feeding, but without being given any nutritional information, in other words without being equipped to make a rational choice.
Perhaps a more important question than speculating about the vagaries of Allah would be to ask educated British people, such as those who attacked Sarah Champion for speaking out about child abuse by Asian men, how they can back gender equality on one hand and the veiling of little girls on the other? I’d start with Toby Howarth, the Bishop of Bradford. He recently told the press that little Muslim girls wanted to ‘look like their mums,’ and this should be allowed. ‘The British policy is not to make too big a deal of it,’ he said, ‘but simply to say you have to wear the right colour (of uniform). This is a matter of religious identity, not sexualisation.’ He grasped the fact that the hijab is about controlling a woman’s sexuality and cannot be necessary for a pre-pubescent girl, but didn’t find that important. Howarth follows in the C of E tradition firmly established by a previous Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Rev David James. Asked by a reporter from the Salisbury Review in 2005 if he would welcome Muslim converts to Christianity he replied flatly, ‘No.’
He explained, ‘Not unless I had an infrastructure of support, which we cannot afford and do not have,’ not intending any criticism of the situation. ‘We (in the Church of England) cannot at present give protection to converts from Islam, safe houses for their families and so on.’ That didn’t matter because, ‘Up to now we’ve only had occasional conversions, all from men whose families have already disowned them – drunkards and drug addicts and so on.’
Our state church has staked its whole future on getting on with minority faiths, meaning Islam, no matter what the cost in terms of human liberty and child welfare. The Department for Education concurs, no matter how much damage it does to girls. A spokesman, (I use that term wisely as the D of Ed cannot be interested in gender equality no matter what it claims), recently said that uniform policies
were entirely up to schools, adding: ‘If a school decided to allow a pupil to wear a burka, that would be up to the school.’
February 1 was celebrated in the House of Commons as ‘World Hijab Day,’ at least by SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, who was commending the veil as a lifestyle choice, but not wearing one herself. She challenged Mrs May to agree with her. The Prime Minister, with utter disingenuity, agreed: ‘What a woman wears is entirely her own choice.’ With such leaders, where can people who care about child abuse, women’s rights and gender equality look for justice? Only groups with strong self-confidence in their own beliefs are now capable of sorting this out. Scarily, they now exist only among the minorities themselves: the Muslim community, which is largely allowed to police itself, and perhaps Roman Catholics, who though tiny in number have some guts left and have never been desperate for popularity.
There was an example of this unexpected agency in January when St Clare’s Catholic primary school in Handsworth, Birmingham, asked the parents of girl pupils to respect its gstrict uniform policy, which remarkably banned the hijab. According to the Birmingham Post, the ‘local community’ was furious at the school’s stance. A pupil’s father complained to the council where Waseem Zaffar, Birmingham City Council’s Labour cabinet member for equalities, fulminated that he’d met the school’s head and told her the ban was in violation of the equalities act. ‘I’m insisting this matter is addressed with a change of policy,’ he told the paper. However, his colleague Majid Mahmood said that since St Clare’s was a faith school, it was ‘maybe within its rights to insist upon a particular dress code’, just as a Muslim faith school ‘may require girls to wear headscarves’. In a remarkable illustration of how many of our cities now work, he suggested that what was sound for the majority, i.e. Muslim schools, must be allowed for the minority: in this case Christian Catholic schools. Dr Mashuq Ally, paid more than £100,000 a year to eradicate prejudice at Birmingham City Council as its assistant Director for Equalities and Human Resources, pointed out that there is no religious requirement for girls of infant school age to wear the hijab. On that occasion leaders of the Muslim community, in charge of a great city council, decided to embrace reason and be merciful to Catholics.
We should be grateful to them as they were under no obligation to do so.