The Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, has responded sternly to an Ofsted invitation for school inspectors to quiz young Muslim girls over headscarfs. Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman, came up with the idea to hear the views of Muslim parents, teachers and communities directly. She said: “The move was to tackle situations in which wearing a hijab ‘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. In seeking to address these concerns, and in line with our current practice in terms of assessing whether the school promotes equality for their children, inspectors will talk to girls who wear such garments to ascertain why they do so in the school.

Controversial Announcement

The announcement made in the Sunday Times, is the latest of a string of requirements issued in the wake of the 2014 ‘Trojan horse’ affair in Birmingham, provoking controversy over fears of Islamist influence in state schools. This latest move was a recommendation to Ofsted inspectors rather than an update to the inspectorate’s official handbook. It follows a meeting last week between Spielman and campaigners against the hijab in schools. These included Amina Lone, co-director of the Social Action and Research Foundation and human rights activist Aisha Ali Khan

Response from the MCB

In a letter to Ms Spielman The Secretary General Harun Khan stated: “Whilst there are legitimate discussions and debates amongst parents about whether young children should wear a headscarf at school, and what is appropriate in terms of school uniform policy, we fear Ofsted’s approach and the language used, will give the impression you do not understand the communities being targeted”.

Reaction From 100 Muslim Women

The MCB has since heard from more than 100 Muslim women, who have given their thoughts on what they think of the idea. Manal from London said: “Although I don’t think girls as young as five should wear it, I need to say my daughter really really wanted to wear it at that age, because she loved to imitate me, and saw me putting it before I left the house. I only forbade her to do so, because I knew people would criticise me, and ask me why I make her wear it at such a young age. She begged me again and again to wear it. When she was an eight-year-old I gave in”. Tahira Sabri, a Secondary Teacher in Scotland added: “My granddaughter of six asked her Mum if she could wear it to school, as she likes to change the colours to suit her mood. For her it’s like a hair accessory. Why would I question it?”

Pinkie Uddin, a Speech and Language Therapist in London said: “For a long time now society has deemed it necessary to make comments on what a girl wears, whether it’s a hijab or something revealing and time and time again we women have said, it is our choice what we wear. If Ofsted are looking to find out more about the hijab they are welcome to in a respectful manner. To take it upon themselves however, to specifically quiz young girls about the hijab can be seen as bullish and inappropriate

Muslim Community Statement

In terms of highlighted key points Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) made it clear:  “The Sunday Times reported ‘the move came after Spielman met Muslim women and secular campaigners calling for a ban on the wearing of hijabs in primary schools’. Which ‘Muslim women’ and ‘secular campaigners’ were consulted? From our own enquiries it appears organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, and the Association of Muslim Schools were not consulted. Therefore, we ask Ofsted to make clear the individuals and organisations it met with in forming this recommendation. We should also examine Ms Spielman’s comments regarding breaching equality laws. In alluding to the risk of the hijab breaching equality laws, there is an obvious need for consistency within the understandings and application of these regulations. For example, if the hijab is deemed a breach, does the same apply to school codes requiring girls to wear skirts and boys to wear trousers? Or codes that require boys to wear ties? Consistency is imperative.”

Legal Clarity

The Equality Act 2010 makes it illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their religion or belief. Therefore, questioning children who cover their hair solely on the basis they are Muslim, would most likely be in breach of this legislation. The right to wear religious clothes is protected by the Human Rights Act 1998, guaranteeing freedom of thought belief and religion.

The Way Forward

Key groups are now calling to engage in constructive dialogue, hinting at possible legal action if the decision to carry out this quiz isn’t reversed. They maintain Ofsted has not conducted a wide-ranging consultation, to ascertain the views of a representative cross-section of the Muslim community.