Australia spends an inordinate amount of time obsessing over Muslim women in hijab. With the intense media scrutiny placed on Islam and Muslims unlikely to abate anytime soon, this obsession is more often than not completely unjustified.
This week, however, the focus is on pre-teen girls, and this brings up an uncomfortable but necessary question: how young is too young for girls to observe Muslim requirements on female “modesty”?
As outdoor media company QMS attracts backlash for its decision to take down an Australia Day billboard featuring two pre-teen girls in the Muslim headscarf, after the billboard itself drew a backlash from angry racists, a teacher at Al-Faisal private Islamic school in Sydney’s west has anonymously criticised that school’s strict uniform for girls, referring to it as “extreme”.
While boys are permitted to wear short sleeves in the summer, the mandatory uniform for Al-Faisal’s female students includes ankle-length skirt, knee-length socks and long-sleeved shirt. Most concerning, however, is the teacher’s allegation that hijab is imposed on of girls from the age of five.
As of writing the school has refused to comment, although the school’s website does list a school hat or headscarf as required from kindergarten onwards, while other sources claim the hijab is compulsory from grade four onwards.
There is good reason for Muslims to be reluctant to air any so-called dirty laundry in an increasingly xenophobic climate. As well as the obvious threat to her job, this teacher is also at risk of admonishment from her fellow Muslims who would be all too aware that any criticism, no matter how constructive and well-intentioned, can and likely will be appropriated by those with an explicit anti-Islam agenda
This agenda was clearly demonstrated in the furore over the billboard, with the original outrage concerned purely with the “disgrace” of associating Muslims with Australia Day. However, with fundamentalism a growing worldwide problem from which Islam is certainly not immune, hostility from outside the Muslim communities should not mean that “anything goes” inside them.
And so, with the backlash to this xenophobia centred on objecting to clear bigotry, and with a campaign to reinstate the billboard gaining steam, what everyone seems to be overlooking is the very young age of the girls themselves.
The modesty dress code is meant for sexually mature women, and girls who have reached puberty. If girls in kindergarten or grade four are being made to comply, then this flies in the face of any claim that observing hijab is a choice for individual women to make according to their own faith.
A girl of this age is not only incapable of an informed decision, she is far too young to have connotations of “modesty” and “purity” imposed on her child’s body.
This issue is only going to keep flaring up as Islam spreads in Western society and its more conservative elements receive the bulk of attention.
In the past few months, German and Swiss courts have both ruled that girls from conservative Muslim families cannot be allowed to skip co-ed swimming classes on religious grounds, partly on the basis that Islamic scripture simply does not contain a clearly outlined requirement on what women “should” wear.
That the situation has come to this only now, despite Islam’s presence in the West for more than a century, indicates a palpable trend towards ultra-conservatism in Muslim communities of the diaspora. Recently arrived Syrian refugees in Germany, for example, are shocked at the conservatism preached from European minbars (pulpits), in mosques funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Undoubtedly, this has much to do with the lingering reverberations of colonisation that still has the Middle East reeling, as well as escalating racism and xenophobia in the West, both of which propel many Muslims to embrace even the most patriarchal practices as genuine expressions of their faith and culture.
However, also to blame is the tendency of Western liberals to associate the most visible forms of Islam with the most authentic and most persecuted.
This idea is nonsense. Alawites (the small sect my own family belongs to), do not observe hijab for women or facial hair requirements for men, meaning they are not “obviously” Muslim, and yet they have been amongst the most persecuted and oppressed minorities in the Middle East for centuries, with no less than five fatwas issued by extreme clerics calling for their complete eradication.
Of course, this does not mean anyone should call for banning any specific interpretation of Islam, which clearly goes against the grain of any liberal democratic society. But it does mean, at the least, we refrain from using taxpayer money to fund discrimination against girls under the guise of religion.
Young girls being forced to comply with the notion that their bodies ought to be completely covered up, before their minds are mature enough the process the concept of hijab and how it relates to faith, is essentially teaching them that their bodies are shameful. Along with practices including the segregation of menstruating girls, which also breeds shame, this must be rejected no matter where it is coming from.
To be clear, Islamic schools are not alone in using religion to justify discrimination. Last year, Australian Catholic schools were accused of breaching the human rights of gay students by refusing to acknowledge their sexuality. This is a problem that exposes the deep patriarchy that lies at the heart of all the world’s major religions.
Those of us who believe in the progressive and tolerant nature of Islam must be willing make our voices heard, because Islam does not belong only to those with the loudest voices or the most patriarchal interpretations.
It certainly does not belong to Islamophobes who are all too happy to accept fundamentalism as the “true” expressions of the religion because they so neatly fit in to their own agenda to eliminate Islam from the West.
But it is precisely the bigots who will benefit from our continued silence as these supposed rivals both seek to redefine Islam in their own image. And when that happens – as is so often the case in this world – it is girls and women who pay the highest price