A Veiled Attack on Muslim Women

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By Sarah Soyei

On 26th January Sir Michael Wilshaw announced that school inspectors will be allowed to rate schools as “inadequate” if pupils or staff are wearing veils and this “is clearly hindering communication and effective teaching.”

Marking a whole school inadequate due to the perceived abilities of one pupil or one teacher seems an extreme measure, so one may be forgiven for thinking that this declaration, widely covered in the national media, was prompted by clear evidence of a widespread problem in schools. However, the number of women who wear the niqab in the UK is very small, and the number of teachers and pupils who wear the niqab is even tinier. In addition, some women and girls who do wear the niqab will be teaching and learning in all girls schools, where the veil is not worn.

Regardless of the small numbers involved, there are already many systems in place to measure teacher and student performance; the likelihood that wearing the veil is the single defining factor and that Ofsted will be able to pick this up during a short observation seems low. In fact, there is no evidence that wearing a veil has any impact on teaching or learning. A search of Ofsted’s website reveals no reference to the niqab or veil as a hindrance to communication. In addition, Andrew Clapham, an expert on school inspection at the Nottingham Trent University school of education, said “There is no credible evidence base to suggest that wearing a piece of clothing on one’s head has an impact on intellectual or academic ability.”

When making his announcement, Sir Michael Wilshaw stated that “I am determined to ensure that discrimination, including on the grounds of gender, has no place in our classrooms. We want our schools, whether faith schools or non-faith schools, to prepare their pupils equally for life in 21st century Britain.” However, in focussing on a tiny minority of Muslim women, this approach is potentially discriminatory itself. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to treat someone less favourably because of their religion or belief. In the absence of evidence to demonstrate the wearing of veils is harmful to teaching and learning, banning veils would potentially contravene the Act. As Kevin Courtney, from the National Union of Teachers, has stated “Rather than assisting school leaders this will have the effect of alienating many staff and pupils.”

This announcement from Ofsted came only days after David Cameron declared that he was launching a £20 million fund for language classes for Muslim Women. It is initially perplexing that the government should focus on Muslim women, most of whom were born in the UK, as the targets for English lessons, rather than targeting them at all people who live in the UK and need help to learn English.

However, David Cameron carried on to say that he was focussing on Muslim women as there had been a culture of ‘passive tolerance’ which meant that there had been a failure to confront the minority of Muslim men whose “backward attitudes” led them to exert “damaging control” over women in their families and that this was not in line with Britain’s ‘liberal values’.

A Government source added: “David knows that the traditional submissiveness of Muslim women is a sensitive issue, but the problems of young people being attracted by extremism will not be tackled without an element of cultural change within the community.

So, the reason that Muslim women have been targeted is to support the fight against Islamic extremism. But, even David Cameron himself said that there was no link between the two: “I’m not saying there’s some sort of causal connection between not speaking English and becoming an extremist – of course not, that would be a ridiculous thing to say.”

There are certainly some Muslim women who suffer isolation at the hands of men, but this is not a problem that is confined to Muslim communities. To present Britain as a bastion of women’s equality ignores the fact that one in four women in Britain experience domestic violence. The men attracted to Roosh V’s ‘Return of Kings’ groups, which advocate for the legalisation of rape on private property, are not primarily Muslims. Even across Britain’s universities there is a prevalence of ‘lad culture’, with misogynistic “banter”, the objectification of women and sexual harassment being rife. Certainly steps need to be taken to deal with these issues, but presenting them as a solely as a problem of ‘backward’ Muslim communities is disingenuous at best, and equipping Muslim women with language skills is not going to dismantle the wider structures of patriarchy and misogyny.

Funding to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is a very positive thing. Being able to speak English opens up many doors for people. Many immigrant women want to learn English so they can help their children with their homework, talk to teachers, doctors and bank managers, work and participate in society. However, this £20 million fund comes on the back of £45 million of cuts to ESOL provision in the summer and over £160 million in cuts since 2008. There are large waiting lists for classes, sometimes up to two years. So the threat to deport people who have not learnt English after two and a half years as an incentive for them to learn English makes no sense. The biggest barrier to people’s ability to learn English is not a lack of willingness to learn, but a lack of opportunities to do so. Indeed, under current rules, those entering the UK on spousal visas are not allowed access to ESOL classes for three years unless they pay expensive foreign student fees. Threatening to deport women, who for whatever reason have not yet mastered the English language, is hardly going to increase their and their children’s sense of cohesion and belonging.

As Myriam Francois-Cerrah, from the centre of Islamic Studies at SOAS explained “…Conflating Muslim women with immigrants, and immigrant Muslim women with extremism, is not simply factually wrong but morally irresponsible. And to link the “isolation” of some Muslim women to extremism is to not simply isolate them further, but to entrench an implicit link between Muslim women and extremism.”

Both of these announcements will do nothing to help create equality, and merely serve to further stigmatise Muslim women and validate the feelings of those who fear and distrust Muslims.

Islamophobic hate crime has gone up by 300% since the Paris attacks in November last year, and women are disproportionately targeted due to their visibility. Some Muslim women have become isolated, not due to Muslim men, but because they fear to go out due the abuse that they have faced; others, armed with skills, qualifications and experience, are still struggling to get employment at the level they desire due to facing triple discrimination of religion, gender and skin colour. If the government really wants to increase the wellbeing of Muslim women, reduce alienation and increase community cohesion, then focussing on addressing Islamophobia would be a much better place to start. Muslim women themselves have provided the best riposte. The hashtag #traditionallysubmissive smashes the one dimensional stereotype presented by these policies and showcases the wide variety of talents, interests and contributions that Muslim women are actually making to British society.


EqualiTeach delivers Faith in Us: Understanding and Challenging Islamophobia Workshops for pupils in KS2-4

The aims of thess workshops are to:

  • Raise awareness of the reality of Islamophobia in the UK and its impact.
  • Equip young people with knowledge and skills to recognise myths about Islam and Muslims
  • Explore what young people should do if they witness or experience Islamophobia
  • Empower young people to actively challenge Islamophobia in the media (KS3&4)

Young people lead the direction of the workshop, participating in a range of hands on, small group and whole group activities. Pupils are provided with the opportunity to ask questions and interrogate their opinions in a safe space; gaining an understanding of the reality and harm of Islamophobia and what they can do to challenge it.

If you would like any further information please contact enquiries@equaliteach.co.uk

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