The OFSTED Hijab controversy: Beyond the Hjiab!

The OFSTED Hijab controversy: Beyond the Hjiab!

Saba Hussain

The Director and Chief Inspector of OFSTED Amanda Spielman recently announced that School inspectors will now be authorized to question Muslim girls in primary schools who practice Hijab, under the suspicion that this practices is leading to sexualisation of young girls. This has once again bought to fore discussions about the limits to multiculturalism, women’s rights within Islam, gendered Islamophobia and sexualisation of female bodies. However, amidst all the arguments and counter arguments around the issue the Hijab seems to be permanently established as an uncontested symbol of Muslim womenhood. This essay hopes to problematize the symbolic power of the Hijab in the discourses around Muslim women, and in the process reframe the linkages between the Hijab and sexulisation of girls established by the OFSTED.

In 2013-14 whilst doing fieldwork for my PhD in Assam’s Nagaon district (India) one of the teachers I was interviewing suggested that Muslim girls are different from other girls in her school because they covered their head. By that point I had been doing ethnographic work in that school for two weeks spending days sitting in the school’s corridor, observing the goings on of the school day starting at 9.00 in the morning. In an all-girl’s school with roughly 40% Muslim girls, I found only one Muslim girl who practiced hijab in school. Yet for the teacher in question, she was representative of all Muslim girls.

Similarly, once while presenting a paper on Muslim women’s representation in Bollywood in an academic conference in the UK, I was surprised to find that a caricaturist who was visualizing all the presentations with nifty sketches had drawn a veiled Muslim woman against my presentation. My presentation did not talk about the veil specifically though it was interested in their dressing choices, yet the caricaturist took the creative liberty of representing my paper with a veiled Muslim woman. These incidents are perhaps small but illuminate the nature of the dominant narrative about Muslim women globally. Dwyer (1999: 7) observes that racialized and gendered discourses about Muslim women in the UK are ‘produced through the use of dress as an overdetermined signifier of identity’. Not only in the UK, but globally the veil remains such a powerful symbol that the empirical realities (viz one girl in the school practicing veiling and my presentation not being about veiled Muslim women) take a backseat in the dominant narrative about Muslim women.

The Children’s Traffic Club Campaign, sponsored and funded by Transport for London (TFL), use an image of a pre-pubescent Muslim girl in hijab. The specific advertisement has been criticized widely for the same logic from members of the British Muslim community. Sky News has quoted, Shaista Gohir, chair of Muslim Women’s Network, UK saying: “It is frustrating to see that every time a Muslim girl or woman needs to be represented, she has to be shown covering her head”. However, criticism of the TFL advert has moved beyond the issue of mis-representation of British Muslim girls to an issue of sexualisation of children. Writing in the Guardian, Amina Lone’s scathing critique of the TFL advert says “The portrayal of a pre-school female child wearing a hijab was most obviously offensive, because it is commonly accepted that Muslim women – if they choose to wear a hijab – do so in adolescence or after puberty because of the link to the growing sexuality of a woman’s body.” She further asserts “This [pre-pubescent girls practicing hijab] is not a tradition mandated by any religious scripture.”

While Lone’s comment on the practice of veiling being associated with post-pubescent girls appears to be accurate, she presumes hastily that somehow veiling is connected solely to the woman’s sexuality. Empirical studies have shown that there are multiple practices of veiling and multiple meanings attached to it such as piety (Mehmood 2012), ethnic identity (Lewis, 2007), gender seclusion (Mernessi, 1991), nationalism and ‘authentic’ national identity in contrast to a Westernized identity (Ahmed, 1992). Yet, there is a universal discursive construction of ‘Muslim women’ through the practices of veiling, much like the references to veiling in colonial and ‘Oriental’ discourses on Muslim societies (Dwyer’s 1999). Thus, Lone’s criticism appears to only reinforces the problem of the overdetermined symbolic power attributed to the veil. Her taking recourse to the religious scriptures in this regard is also simplistic because if we accept religious scriptures as the ultimate authority on women’s dressing then we also have to uncritically accept a narrow version of what constitutes an “acceptable” Muslim woman in the context of older girls, and young women.

The Guardian reports that following a meeting with Amina Lone and other campaigners against hijab in the schools, Amanda Spielman, the head of OFSTED has announced that inspectors in England have been told to question Muslim primary school girls if they are wearing a hijab or similar headscarf. The move is aimed towards tackling situation that “could be interpreted as sexualisation” of girls as young as four or five, when most Islamic teaching requires headdress for girls only at the onset of puberty. The same announcement further goes on to implicitly establish a co-relation between wearing faith symbols and holding extremist views by saying “We would urge any parent or member of the public who has a concern about fundamentalist groups influencing school policy, or breaching equality law to make a complaint to the school. If schools do not act on these complaints they can be made to Ofsted directly”.

Such remarks not only infringe upon schools’ autonomy of making decisions, they normalise Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry in social setting; and they do so in blatantly gendered ways by putting young Muslim girls at the centre of the institutional processes of othering. OFSTED’s position becomes even more problematic in the context of Muslim women’s/girls’ heightened vulnerability to anti-Muslim prejudice including street-level violence.

According to Tell Mama’s 2016 Report the greatest impact of this anti-Muslim prejudice is “felt by visible Muslim women, who wear Islamic clothing, be it the headscarf (hijab), face veil (niqab), the abaya, or a combination of garments”. In such a climate the institutionalized singling out of school going Muslim girls sets a dangerous precedent. It not only ‘others’ them among their peers and teachers in the schools but also in the wider society. And even if we were to assume that TFL advert were indeed sexualising young Muslim girls, by extending the controversy into the primary school setting, the OFSTED is giving you rather dangerous message that state institutions are only interested in the (de)sexualisation of certain groups of population and not others.

The concerns that veiling does not represent the lived reality of large sections of Muslim women in the UK and elsewhere needs to be addressed through a diversified representation of Muslim women in popular media. It is also important not to dismiss Lone’s argument about sexualisation of young children. Weather the TFL advert sexualised young Muslim girls or not is an important conversation to be taken forward within the ambit of the wider conversations about sexualisation of children in popular culture and the pervasive sexualisation of contemporary culture (Gill 2007). But singling out veiling of Muslim girls alone as a sexualising practice stigmatizes the racial and ethnic minority communities they come at a time when they are already being viewed with suspicion under the counter-terrorism agenda.

We must also acknowledge that a headscarf or a veil remains a pervasively powerful symbol of Muslim women in the contemporary world cutting across geographical and cultural barriers. Therefore, there is an urgent need to diversify our understanding and representations of Muslim women beyond the veil and indeed beyond sartorial practices. To a group so diverse in national-cultural belonging, religiosity and sartorial practices, a single overarching symbol seems absurd. The feminist intellectual task for us, then, is to think about strategies to destabilize the veil as this all-encompassing symbol, by ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ Muslim women from various racial and ethnic groups, of various sartorial preference, of varied sexual preference, women with disability and so on.

Ahmed, L. (1992) Women and Gender in Islam. London: Yale University Press
Dwyer, C. (1999) Veiled meanings: young British Muslim women and the negotiation of differences [1]. Gender, Place and Culture: a Journal of Feminist Geography, 6 (1): 5-26.
Gill, Rosalind (2007) Postfeminist media culture: elements of a sensibility. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (2). pp. 147-166.
Lewis, R. (2007) Veils and sales: Muslims and the spaces of postcolonial fashion retail. Fashion Theory, 11 (4): 423-441.
Mahmood, Saba, (2012) Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mernissi, F. (1991). The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, London: Basic Books.


Saba Hussain is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Warwick

Image: Adam Jones Muslim women’s wear display, Tangier Morocco. CC BY-SA 2.0.