Dear Ms Spielman,
I write on behalf of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). We are an independent, not-for-profit, campaign, research and advocacy organisation based in London, UK. IHRC has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
I am one of the founders of IHRC and currently its head of research. I have written various articles on the subject of human rights, gender and Muslim women, and my research work has included some of the following projects and titles:
– British Muslim Expectations of Government (BMEG) series, which included the titles Hijab, Meaning, Identity, Otherization And Politics: British Muslim Women, and Secular Or Islamic: What Schools Do British Muslims Want For Their Children?
– UK hate crimes survey, which includes Environment of Hate: The New Normal for Muslims in the UK which discusses anti-Muslim hate crimes and sentiments in the UK based on a wide ranging survey of Muslims in the UK.
– Other hate crimes research publications include: Only Canadian: The Experience Of Hate Moderated Citizenship For Muslims; France And The Hated Society: Muslim Experiences; Once Upon A Hatred: Anti-Muslim Experiences In The USA.
– I am currently working on the EU funded project Countering Islamophobia through the Development of Best Practice in the use of Counter-Narratives in EU Member States, led by the University of Leeds.
I am writing to convey my concerns about your comments in the media that you had requested your inspectors to interrogate young Muslim girls wearing the hijab, as you believed the hijab:
“could be interpreted as sexualisation” of girls as young as four or five, when most Islamic teaching requires headdress for girls only at the onset of puberty. [https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/nov/19/school-inspectors-to-question-primary-school-girls-who-wear-hijab]
We were struck by the novelty of this argument. Until recently Muslim women were berated for wearing the hijab as it erased and denied their sexuality while in public. For you to invert this argument and still manage to use it as an effective tool to demonise Muslim women marks a new low for an already marginalised group. It seems now we are oppressed by the hijab because it denies the sexuality of grown women and we need protection as it overly sexualises prepubescent girls (I am sure you will see the contradiction).
But in all this discussion on hijab and how it oppresses Muslim women the voice of Muslim women and Muslim families is lost. We are concerned that, according to reports, your intervention comes after unsolicited advice and lobbying by interest groups representing a very narrow section of the community. Given what they are lobbying for seeks to destroy people’s right to religious freedoms, one would expect you to point out their errors rather than rolling back the equalities and freedoms enjoyed in the UK. While these individuals are entitled to their opinions, it is absurd for Ofsted inspectors to start interrogating young girls based on the distorted views of obscure and irrelevant interest groups.
The hijab is an integral part of practising Islam for many Muslim women. While modesty is an element of wearing the hijab for many women, which you identified, so is the desire to imbue one’s life with the spirituality that comes with devotion to God. The socialisation process in all communities involves the young learning the values and ethics of their parents by copying them. Whether that is a young girl wearing makeup, dressing up in her mother’s clothing or wearing the hijab. A critical part of this socialisation process is that parents should be free to teach their religious (or non-religious) values and practices without state interference. What your intervention does is deny this right to Muslim parents specifically.
Violations of people’s fundamental rights and freedoms.
We believe that this new recommendation to your inspectors violates the rights of young children, their families and is discriminatory since it specifically targets Muslims. It is a clear violation of people’s freedom of thought, conscience and religion as set out in Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. [Emphasis added]
For Ofsted inspectors to question the religious beliefs of young people is to violate their freedom of conscience and religion. Wat business does the state have to question peoples faith? It is also a violation of Article 2 of the First Protocol to the ECHR (which is incorporated by HRA 1998):
No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. [Emphasis added]
Your inspectors questioning children on hijab essentially erodes the rights of parents to teach their religious values to their children.
Your intervention also erodes numerous rights enshrined in international conventions and treaties that the UK has signed up to. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK has ratified, states:
1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.
3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language. [Emphasis added]
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states the following:
1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. [Emphasis Added]
In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.
I would also like to draw your attention to a number of key points contained in the UN General Assembly resolution, Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, which provides minorities:
Protection, by States, of their existence and their national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity (art. 1);
The right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, and to use their own language in private and in public (art. 2 (1));
The right to participate effectively in cultural, religious, social, economic and public life (art. 2 (2));
The right to participate effectively in decisions which affect them on the national and regional levels (art. 2 (3));
The freedom to exercise their rights, individually as well as in community with other members of their group, without discrimination (art. 3).
It is clear that your intervention on this matter is misinformed and based on consultation with individuals with narrow interests that by no means reflect the views of the wider community. Had you consulted the wider the community, rights groups or lawyers, you would have seen the problems with your suggestion and how they ride roughshod over the rights of children, parents and families and undermines the UKs legal commitments under international law. The fact that only the religious practice of Muslims was singled out should have clearly indicated to you the discriminatory nature of your proposal.
We ask that you reconsider this recommendation to your inspectors as interrogating young Muslim girls’ faiths at school breaches the law and is discriminatory. If Ofsted goes ahead with this discriminatory proposal, we will consider challenging this decision, including advising parents to oppose this as it violates their children’s rights and is discriminatory.
I look forward to hearing from you.