Public officials in the UK are currently allowing Islamists to control what Muslim girls will wear in schools. They have portrayed the Islamic veil as an "empowering" marker of Muslim identity. With such rhetoric, they have assisted Islamist groups in Great Britain intent on normalizing "the contestable view that Muslim women should be entirely covered except for the face and hands."
This is the finding of "The Symbolic Power of the Veil," a report recently published by the influential British think tank Policy Exchange. The report was authored by former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Jenkins, scholar and human rights activist Elham Manea, and counter-Islamist researcher Damon L. Perry. The main thrust of the report is that policy makers in the UK should establish dress codes for schools in Great Britain and condemn the oppression of women in Muslim-majority countries. The report also calls on the Government to resist any definition of "Islamophobia" that inhibits public criticism of religious practices and traditions, including dress codes. It also calls on officials to refrain from publicly endorsing or promoting any specific religious attire, including events such as World Hijab Day.
The campaign to force girls to wear Islamic clothing in public schools began in earnest with the 2006 publication of a booklet by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), an Islamist organization with close ties to Iran. The booklet outlined a strategy of "mainstreaming" the hijab into the education and employment sectors in the UK. Ominously enough, the booklet was co-authored by Saied R. Ameli who was named secretary of Supreme Council of Cultural Revolution (SCCR) in 2019 in Iran, where women are currently being beaten and even killed for not wearing hijabs in public.
"Women should not be forced to wear clothing that covers their entire body (including clothes that only show their face and hands), nor be punished or even killed for refusing to comply. The British government should publicly state this," the Policy Exchange report declares.
Jenkins, an eminent scholar of the Middle East who also served as ambassador also in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, asserts the decision to wear the veil is not merely a spiritual impulse or a fashion decision, but a political and ideological one. "Events in Iran have shown not only that the Islamic veil may be used as an instrument for the oppression of women, but also that its symbolism is part of an ideology that undermines both diverse Islamic viewpoints and Western liberal democracy," he wrote in the report.
Another co-author of the report, Swiss professor of political science Elham Manea, who is of Yemeni origins and the author of The Perils of Nonviolent Islamism, suggests that by promoting the use of the hijab in UK schools, Islamists are promoting the agenda of fundamentalists such as Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Hassan Al-Banna who promoted a vision of a sharia-governed Islamist state that would ultimately lead to the creation of a caliphate. "To match that ideology, he needed a dress code," Manea writes, adding that with Al-Banna, the veil was "the symbol for a political project, one that sought to create a puritanical society based on a fundamentalist view of gender roles."
"The veil is never neutral. It cannot be separated from its historical, patriarchal and ideological dimensions," she wrote, adding that the veil "does not concern only those who choose to wear it. It also concerns those who do not and the oppression they endure."
Activists advocating for Islamic practices have become aggressive in pushing their cultural requirements on schools in the UK in the years since 2006, the report states. An inflection point came in 2018 when the principal of St Stephen's, a secular primary school in East London, prohibited girls under eight from wearing the hijab, citing equal rights and health and safety concerns. However, after facing harassment and death threats, she was compelled to reverse her decision.
The reversal came after Islam Channel presenter Hafsah Dabiri used an online petition to rally 20,000 Muslims from the UK and beyond against the ban. Posters apparently incited by Dabiri took to the internet to call the teacher "vile rat, paedophilic person, slave to racism, Nazi-like thinker." The Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) group, which supported the campaign against the ban, celebrated their triumph when the teacher yielded.
The same year, the Foreign Office distributed hijabs among civil servants to promote 'World Hijab Day,' advising them in an internal memo that the headscarf is worn by some women who see it as representing "liberation, respect and security."
Yasmin Rehman, chief executive of domestic violence charity Juno Women's Aid and a former advisor to the Ministry of Justice, welcomed the Policy Exchange's report, telling Focus on Western Islamism, (FWI), "I think women should have the right to dress as they wish, but we have to ask if the right of the religious group trumps the rights of women and girls?" When it comes to young children, Rehman finds the veiling "absolutely abhorrent."
"Little girls should have absolutely the same right as little boys to run around and feel the wind in their hair, play and jump and do all the things that their brothers and peers can do, unrestricted by some religious dress. And I say that as a practicing Muslim," she said.
Rehman told FWI, "I find World Hijab Day incredibly offensive. And the fact that every image of a Muslim woman is a hijab-wearing Muslim woman. It denies the diversity within [Muslim] communities across the world."
"We also have to recognize that when we exercise choice in one part of the world, in a way that adopts these dress codes, it has an impact in other parts of the world," Rehman added. She does not think the UK should ban all religious symbols from public institutions but asserts the state has a responsibility to protect and safeguard children.
"What does it do to child development?" she said. "If you're a young girl and all the women around you are shrouded, whether it's black or whatever colour they choose to wear, what does that say to a young girl about her place in the world?"
Yasmine Mohammed, a Canadian-Egyptian author of Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam, a memoir about her fundamentalist upbringing which included forced veiling and a forced marriage to an Al Qaeda operative, affirmed the report's findings.
"As women who grew up in environments where we were taught to view our bodies as shameful ... we understand the deeply negative impact that such tools of misogyny can have on a woman's psyche," she said. "We feel a strong responsibility to speak out against the harm that girls in countries like Iran and Afghanistan are forced to endure. We are also driven to protect the girls in the UK from enduring what we have been through."
Hannah Baldock is a UK-based researcher on radicalization and terrorism.