Ban on niqab veils in UK schools not enough By Maryam Namazie

Even after a national ruling allowing schools to ban full-face Islamic veils from schools, Britain’s government and courts still don’t do enough to protect children from their parents’ beliefs. Maryam Namazie comments.

British Education Secretary Alan Johnson’s announcement this week that head teachers are free to ban schoolchildren from wearing the niqab (full Muslim veil) misses the most significant point.

As in the British High Court ruling last month, upholding a court victory by a Buckinghamshire school (which cannot be named for legal reasons) which banned the niqab, the argument goes that wearing the full veil affects classroom interaction, communication, safety and learning. Of course they do, but these are mere side effects.

The most important point is that the veiling of children, in whatever form, constitutes the emotional abuse of girls. It relegates them to second-class status, keeps them trapped in mobile prisons and teaches them that they must forever be separate and unequal merely because of their sex.

Alan Johnson and the High Court should have safeguarded the girls in question, and all girls who are veiled, by instituting a ban on the imposition of their parents’ beliefs and religion until they are of an age to decide for themselves.

Just because parents believe in something does not mean they can harm, indoctrinate or impose their beliefs on their children. We have come a long way from the days when children were seen to be the property of their parents to do with them as they liked.

Today, in Britain at least, a child cannot be denied medical attention because her parents don’t believe in blood transfusions, can’t be beaten and starved to ‘exorcise demons’ or be genitally mutilated and married at nine because it is her parents’ belief or religion.

More subtle, but just as harmful, forms of emotional abuse like veiling, however, continue to be permissible or at best ignored or denied for the sake of religion or culture.

Yet the recent rulings that the niqab or jilbab have adverse effects (as in the case of schoolgirl Shabina Begum, who lost her fight to wear the jilbab, a flowing gown) are only deemed applicable to the schools in question and not all schools – or for that matter society at large.

Shabina, for example, attended another local school which allowed her to wear the jilbab.The 12-year-old whose father took her case to the High Court last month has been encouraged to go to an alternative school where she can continue wearing the niqab.

Moreover, according to a spokesperson at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), an important matter such as this is up to ‘individual schools in consultation with local parents and religious bodies’.

The fact that it can be permissible in one school, while not in another, and that the child is left to the mercy of religious bodies, shows how far the state is willing to appease religion at the expense of the child.

Nonetheless, whilst parents or self-appointed imams or ‘community leaders’ may believe that girls must be sexualised at a young age, kept segregated from boys, be taught that they are different and unequal, it is the responsibility of the state and educational system to intervene, level the playing field, and safeguard the rights of all children irrespective of, and even despite, the family they were born into.

Veiling is a clear case in point. The state is duty bound to ensure that nothing segregates children or restricts them from accessing information, advances in society, their rights, playing games, swimming and in general doing the things that children do.

Whilst the issue has deceptively been portrayed as a matter of ‘choice’ for the girls in question, it is anything but. Because of their very nature, children most often do what their parents want or expect of them, even if it is against their best interests.

Children do not make or have choices like adults.

Even if there are children who say they choose to be veiled, the veiling of children must still be banned – just as a child must be protected even if she ‘chooses’ to stay with her abusive parents rather than in state care, even if she ‘chooses’ to work to support her family in violation of child labour laws or even if she ‘chooses’ to stop attending school.

Until the child is given precedence over her parent’s religion or beliefs, society will continue to fail innumerable girls relegated to a life of sexual apartheid.

• Maryam Namazie is a human rights activist and television producer.

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