Thursday, October 14, 2010

Odd British School Uniforms

According to the U.K. Telegraph (sorta right-wing) three private Muslim girls' schools in Britain require that the students wear a face-covering veil on their way to and back from school:

Islamic schools have introduced uniform policies which force girls to wear the burka or a full headscarf and veil known as the niqab.


Madani, which has 260 pupils, charges fees of £1,900 a year. Its website states: "All payments should be made in cash. We do not accept cheques."

School uniform rules listed on the website have been deleted but an earlier version, seen by this newspaper, stated: "The present uniform conforms to the Islamic Code of dressing. Outside the school, this comprises of the black Burka and Niqab."

The admission application form warns girls will be "appropriately punished" for failing to wear the correct uniform, and its website adds: "If parents are approached by the Education Department regarding their child's education, they should not disclose any information without discussing it with the committee."

Madani Girls' School, which is a listed as a private limited company and was removed from the Charity Commission's records at the end of last year, was visited by Ofsted in 2008 but the inspectorate's report makes no mention of the strict uniform code.

It rated the school's overall performance as "satisfactory" but noted that "the history curriculum is limited to Islamic history in Key Stage 3". A number of aspects of school life were praised, including pupil behaviour.

Explaining the school's ethos, Madani's website says: "If we oppose the lifestyle of the west then it does not seem sensible that the teachers and the system, which represents that lifestyle, should educate our children."

Jamea Al Kauthar is a £2,500-a-year girls' boarding school, which accommodates 400 pupils in the grounds of Lancaster's former Royal Albert Hospital.

It states on its website: "Black Jubbah [smock-like outer garment] and dopatta [shawl] is compulsory as well as purdah (veil) when leaving and returning to Jamea. Scarves are strictly not permitted."

The website also lists a wide range of banned items, including family photographs, and warns: "Students must not cut their hair, nor remove hair from between their eyebrows. Doing so will lead to suspention (sic)."

Jamea Al Kauthar was rated "outstanding" by Ofsted earlier this year.

In Leicester, Jameah Girls Academy, which charges £1,750 a year for primary-age pupils and £1,850 for secondary, states in its rules: "Uniform, as set out in the pupil/parent handbook, which comprises of headscarf and habaya for all pupils, and niqab for girls attending the secondary years, to be worn during journeys to and from The Academy."
Ofsted stands for the Office for Standards in Education which inspects schools in Britain.

If these rules indeed are correct, they mean that the students have no choice about covering their faces. Just like with school uniforms in general. Even if students in theory had the choice of choosing a different type of school in practice it is their parents who make that choice.

Another website discusses the wider ramifications of this story:

Imposing the burka is as dangerous as banning it. As Dr Taj Hargey, chairman of the Muslim Educational Trust of Oxford, said, it creates a "dangerous precedent." The imposition of the burka is also a discriminatory measure because it allows only the students who comply with the school's dress code to become students on the grounds that the system educates pupils for an Islamic life. However, most moderate Muslim communities have condemned such policies, arguing they would serve only to isolate children from the rest of society.

Wearing the burka should be a personal choice, not an external imposition. For the same reason, Muslim women in France should be allowed to wear the burka in public institutions should they wish to. Banning the burka, or making it compulsory are both dangerous and extreme measures because they deny women the right to choose how they want to express their faith.
This links directly to feminist discussions about the burqa. The topic casts a lot of light on how the definition of feminism pushes a particular conclusion. Most of the feminists who focus on the outcomes for individual women (the product, if you wish, of a particular societal system of laws, rules and norms) conclude that Muslim women in non-Muslim countries should be allowed to wear the burqa if they so choose to do.

This is because of both the right to religious freedom (if it applies to a particular country in terms of its laws) and because of the fear that women who are not choosing to cover their faces but forced to do so by their families would have even less freedom if burqas and niqabs were banned, because then their families might not let them go out at all.

Still, I have heard several feminists state that they are not themselves comfortable with this conclusion. Perhaps that is because it also implies the right to be subjected to all the rest of the unfairness one's religion imposes on those of the female sex? Including, in some cases, total subjugation of women to men and so on. Thus, in extreme cases this particular lens of feminism leads to the preposterous conclusion that feminists should openly support the right of women to be oppressed. If that is the women's choice, of course!

I have written about this dilemma before. It's not much of a dilemma if one uses the old definition of feminism, having to do with equal rights for all independently of one's assigned gender and equal valuation of traditional male and female spheres of activity. Using this definition often offers the solution to me, and it does in this case, too.

I'm not going to address this directly to the question whether men are allowed to wear burqas and niqabs, too. In some sense they obviously are if women are, but the real question consists of going one step deeper and of asking why religions make different rules for the male and female followers. This is the case in most of the big religions and it certainly is the case in Islam. The Shariah law, for example, is explicitly unequal in many of its decisions. For example, daughters inherit only one half of what sons do, child custody is assumed to go to the father as the default option (i.e., whenever feasible) and so on.

Likewise, men are not expected to cover their hair or almost all of their body in Islam. The rules are different, to begin with, and this means that the appeals to religious freedom immediately and unavoidably set men and women into positions of inequality. This creates the paradox that fighting for the religious freedom of a woman often means fighting for her right to choose subjugation and a more limited life. That is where the reason of that uncomfortable feeling comes from when feminists defend women's right to wear the burqa in Europe or the women's right to choose a polygamous male-dominated religious marriage in the US. Its ultimate source is in the gender inequality that is an inherent part of many religions.