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UK: A school that forces women to wear the niqab is attacking tolerance

Monday 25 October 2010, by siawi2

by Tehmina Kazi,

from British Muslims for Secular Democracy

The website of the Madani Girls School in Tower Hamlets is replete with slogans about “educating for an Islamic life.” Amidst all the glittering reports of a 100% pass rate at GCSE, and a recent OFSTED inspection where inspectors praised the school for the “motivated staff and the enthusiastic and polite nature of the pupils,” one section lies conspicuously blank: school uniform policy.

This school – as well as the Jameah Al Kauthar in Lancaster and Jameah Girls’ Academy in Leicester – came under fire this weekend for insisting that all girls must wear a niqab (face-veil) when travelling to and from school.

The Sunday Telegraph, having captured the Madani Girls School uniform policy before it was removed from their website, confirmed: “The present uniform conforms to the Islamic Code of dressing. Outside the school, this comprises of the black Burka and Niqab.”

Nobody is calling the school’s outstanding results into question; they go some way towards justifying the £1,900-a-year fees that parents have to pay (in cold, hard cash as opposed to cheques, which the school refuses to accept).

It goes without saying that tolerance is a two-way street, which is why an absolute ban on niqab in public spaces was always going to be a bad idea.

However, it is disingenuous for niqab advocates to use the language of choice and empowerment when advocating their religious freedoms, then to deny these same concepts to young girls in the same breath. It is one thing for a mature adult to make a decision about covering her face in public, but quite another to impose a face-covering onto girls as young as eleven.

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It entirely obliterates their physical identity from the public sphere at a crucial stage in the development of their personalities and self-esteem; imparts an unnaturally and unnecessarily strong awareness of sexual politics; and creates an exaggerated hierarchy of piety between different girls. And it almost always seems to be girls, and not boys, who assume the bulk of the responsibility in upholding standards of modesty.

What a departure from the words and meaning of the Qu’ran, which addresses men first in Surah 24:30: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.”

The Madani Girls School warns that any pupil who fails to wear the correct uniform will be “appropriately punished.” As far as school uniform misdemeanours go, this is qualitatively different from a shirt that hasn’t been tucked in, or a tie that is too stumpy.

In religious terms, there is a considerable difference of opinion on the niqab. A small minority of scholars deem it to be obligatory, others say it is a recommended sign of modesty, while a large number have decreed that it is not necessary. Others go as far as to say that face-veiling is not Islamic at all.

Some commentators have argued that applying to these schools – and gaining admission – is a de-facto acceptance of their terms and conditions, and that the parents knew exactly what they were getting themselves into. Of course, this doesn’t take into account that schools have a duty to protect children from social pressures to dress in a particular way (whether face-veils or Playboy t-shirts) and this duty should not be discharged just because they do not presently rely on taxpayer’s money.

This is particularly the case for schools that aim to become state-funded ‘free schools’ under the Coalition Government’s education policy.

It is time for faith schools like Madani to reconsider the impact of such uniform policies on their pupils, and how likely these policies are to turn out citizens who will be able to traverse parliamentary receptions, after-work parties and the local mosque with equal ease.

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This was first published in the Eastern Eye newspaper