Sameea Jonnud, Aldershot
At my school in West London there was a uniform policy of skirts, blouses and blazers. Trousers were not allowed at all until after I left when the great number of girls from the Indian sub-continent led to a change so trousers and in fact a traditional shalwar kameez in standard navy blue joined the uniform list. Until sixth form, when I was able to wear loose trousers and a loose shirt I had to follow the uniform policy. This meant instead of bare legs, socks or sheer tights I wore thick, ribbed opaque tights with my skirt. Islam requires obedience to authority and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has always advocated following rules so I felt this was a compromise which kept my dress modest while conforming to the uniform policy.
By the time my own children started school things had changed; skirts were and are still part of the uniform but have been joined by trousers giving the girls freedom of movement while keeping their legs covered. Schools are pretty tolerant about the requirements of different faiths and have allowed my children to sit out of Christmas Carols and to say their Prayers in an empty classroom during the short winter days.
While headscarves, or hijabs, were visible in some schools during my schooldays now they have become much more common. Muslim girls in secondary schools are routinely able to cover their heads but younger primary aged girls are also sometimes doing so. The subject of primary aged girls wearing headscarves arose recently with reports of some Muslims women approaching Ofsted with the wish to ban the headscarf in primary schools. This was followed by a report that Ofsted inspectors were to question young girls who do wear a headscarf. My reaction on hearing this was why are they trying to make trouble where there is none and is this really going to help a child’s well-being?
There are some primary schoolgirls who wear a hijab; in Islam the requirement to cover the head is once a girl reaches an age of full maturity which can start around the age of 12 or 13 so before that time she doesn’t need to do so and a parent shouldn’t force her to do so either. However there are cases where a girl may wish to cover her head; she may have seen women in her family wear a hijab when going out and wish to do the same. It would not occur to her that she is covering her head from men as the only reason would be innocently wanting to be like the women of her family. In that case is it really necessary to legislate against her action? Very young girls often wear bikinis or make-up which makes them look like their mum and at school will talk about how their clothing can attract the boys. Should legislation be extended to cover this too?
The idea of Ofsted questioning young Muslim girls about covering their heads is a dangerous one and brings up reminders of when children were questioned under the Prevent strategy to uncover evidence of extremism. A child drawing a picture of a man cutting a cucumber which he mispronounced as sounding like “cooker bomb”, another who drew his terraced house spelling it as “terrorist house” were both cases where children and their families were treated as suspects of sorts due to innocent mistakes. A policy of questioning young girls could go the same way.
Leaving aside mistakes being made it would not be healthy for a child to be singled out from their school friends to justify why she covered her head; there are enough reports of stress and mental health issues among young schoolchildren without adding to them when we should be helping children lessen any stress. Even in cases where older girls need to be asked about their hijab it should be ensured this is done sensitively and without making the girls feel they were being singled out for doing something wrong. It is difficult enough for Muslim children these days hearing about terrorist atrocities in the news as well as listening to anti-Muslim sentiment, sometimes to their faces; they can do without the added stress of being made to feel something they are doing or even their very faith is hated or wrong.
Growing up is a difficult time for children when even small problems can feel insurmountable; as adults our treatment of children needs to be in a sensitive manner so as not to add to any anxiety that may already be building up. Common sense needs to be used; if a young girl wishes to cover her head let her; if there are any concerns about a child which need further investigation it should be done in a sensitive manner through proper channels and not merely because she covers her head in school. Rather than causing problems where there are none our goal needs to be putting the well-being of our children first and help them grow up to be relaxed, confident young people who will make positive contributions to society.