The media can once again be compared to vultures flying in circles around their prey, feeding on the morsels of a right-wing political agenda. This time regurgitating old fears about the traditional Islamic sense of dress and the alleged threat posed to British society and identity.
“The state school where girls are forced to wear hijabs in classrooms and outside school,” the Daily Mail falsely asserted, targeting Tauheedul Islam Girls’ High School in Blackburn. “I think it threatens to create young British Muslims who are not able to integrate in the wider society, who are living in isolation and outside the wider community,” former government advisor on the prevention of terrorism, Haris Rafiq told the Sunday Times.
There have been many other instances including Birmingham Metropolitan College threatening a divisive ban on face veils (niqab), which was dropped after a protest petition attracted a staggering 8,000 signatures in just 48 hours. The hysterical onslaught, reminiscent of the controversy raised by former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, in 2007, has also encompassed the apparent dangers of beards after two 14-year old Muslim pupils were placed in “isolation” at Mount Carmel Roman Catholic High School in Accrington, Lancashire. The disregard for beards was believed to be a thing of the past; in 1990s large number of Muslim boys were forced to shave their beard and suspended if they returned from Hajj with their heads shaven (an obligation on returning male hajjis [pilgrims]).
The Daily Telegraph referred to the beard issue as a Muslim “row,” but Head Teacher, Xavier Bowers, stressed that the matter is not one of religion but about the dress code. “I have spent quite a lot of time researching the issue and speaking to Muslim elders. There is nothing specifically written in the Qur’an about wearing a beard. It is a choice those boys are making. However inclusive we are, we have standards to maintain,” Bowers was quoted saying by the local Lancashire Telegraph.
The Muslim sense of dress has been under fire across Europe for over the past decade after France became the first country to ban the wearing of the hijab in schools in 1994 (see The Muslim News Issue No 66, September 23, 1994). In France as well as Belgium, the wearing of the full-face veil is now entirely banned. There have also been moves in other European countries to impose various restrictions against Muslims.
Whilst there is no ban on Islamic dress in the UK, schools are however allowed to forge their own dress code with apt consideration of various religions and their own necessary dress codes. But last month, Prime Minister, David Cameron, said the state should back institutions such as schools, courthouses and immigration centres which require individuals to remove face veils. “We are a free country and people should be free to wear whatever clothes they like in public or in private. But we should support those institutions that need to put in place rules so that those institutions can work properly,” he said.
In the 90s, the then Tory Government issued guidelines that schools should be sensitive to religious dress codes. If one takes Cameron’s comments on board it can be said that they have taken a U-turn in regard to the previous policy. According to Department for Education guidelines, schools should not only “act reasonably” to accommodate religious requirements in their uniform policy, but also ensure they act within the Equality Act 2010 on religious discrimination.
UKIP, which has been gaining success at the polls at the expense of the Tories, is the only party to have previously called for a total ban of the face veil. Their Leader, Nigel Farage, said in 2010 the full veils are a symbol of an “increasingly divided Britain”, that they “oppress” women, and are a potential security threat. In response, Labour’s former Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, said it was “not British” to tell people what to wear in the street.
The issue of the face veil, which is common in some Arab states and has been adopted by Muslims of various backgrounds who follow a more salafist interpretation of Islam, is being blown out of all proportion as it is worn by so few Muslim women in this country. Britain is a tolerant society and must remain so. We would be on a dangerously slippery slope if restrictions on what one wore in regard to their religion, was challenged. This is not to say that there should be no provisions to overcome security or identity risks – which are rare in occurrence as it is. There appears to be increasing ignorance, deliberate or not, about the various forms of Muslim dress. What is clear is that it seems to affront the tabloid displays of scantily dressed females.
The ugly debate is part of a recurring theme that demonises Muslims – playing to the gallery of extremists such as the BNP and EDL. No one can be left in any doubt about the increase in Islamophobia, not just amongst extremists and tabloids but also in mainstream politics and the media. All of which, needs to be addressed urgently.