In recent weeks, British media, political figures and commentators have been drawn into an angry and overwrought debate on the burqa (and its cousin, the niqab) -- the all-enveloping outer garment favoured by, or perhaps forced upon, a considerable number of British Muslim women.
The sudden spotlight was switched on as a result of two simultaneous challenges to the conflict between the burqa and a free society. First, the Birmingham Metropolitan College recently decided, after a well-publicized protest against university authorities, to un-ban the garment on campus after eight years of unopposed proscription. Second, during a recent fraud trial, Judge Peter Murphy ruled that the accused, a Muslim woman, must remove her niqab while giving evidence in court.
While ministers, political commentators, civil rights groups and tabloid papers hotly contest the ethics and practical details of a theoretical ban, little attention is being paid, aside from the occasional newspaper article, to a far more alarming problem: schools where girls as young as 11 are forced to wear the burqa or niqab.
As with the wider burqa debate, the occasional newspaper article on mandatory veils in schools has failed to examine the ideological forces behind this agenda: Islamism and its apologists. While non-Muslims argue among themselves over the permissibility of the veil in public spaces, British schools controlled by extreme Islamist groups, in which young girls are forced to cover their faces, have largely escaped the spotlight. The notion that the taxpayer should subsidize, and thus legitimize, those institutions where pupils are compelled to wear the veil, among other diminishing restrictions, seems a far more pressing concern.
Three schools -- Jamea Al Kauthar in Lancaster, the Abrar Academy in Preston, and the Rabia school in Luton -- all state that, "Black Jubbah [a smock-like outer garment] and dopatta [shawl] is compulsory as well as purdah [veil] when leaving and returning to school. Scarves are strictly not permitted. ... Students must not cut their hair, nor remove hair from between their eyebrows. Doing so will lead to suspention [sic]."
The Jameah Girls' Academy in Leicester demands that, "Uniform, as set out in the pupil/parent handbook, comprises of headscarf and habaya [cloak] for all pupils, and niqab for girls attending the secondary years [11 and above]."
A number of Islamic primary schools require girls from the age of four to wear headscarves, including al‐Noor Independent School in Ilford; Madani Secondary Girls' School in East London; Iqra School in Oxford; and the al‐Islah School in Blackburn.
In 2009, Shifa Patel, a staff member at al-Islah, a private school, was forced to resign after photographs of her -- with short hair, and wearing a shirt and trousers -- were discovered on a social media site. Refusing to accept that a woman could dress in this manner, angry parents and pupils accused Patel, who dressed in the appropriate veil while at school, of actually being male. In an attempt to put a stop to the claims, Patel even underwent a medical examination to prove she was female.
As for Madani Girls' School, it instructs pupils that, "Madani ... has a strict Uniform Policy which is to be followed in order to represent the school and its values but most importantly it supports the desired dress code of a Muslim female. ... 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 that girls who fail to wear the correct uniform will be "appropriately punished." The Madani School's 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."
Although Madani School is not directly publicly funded, a number of politicians have accused the local authorities of subsidising Madani Girls' School by selling the school its current premises for £320,000 below market value.
The taxpayer-funded Al Madinah Free School in Derby also demands that female teachers wear a hijab -- whether they are Muslim or not. The school also forces girls to sit at the back of classrooms; stringed instruments are forbidden; teachers claim that during Ramadan, lessons are replaced with prayer sessions; and, during a school trip to a zoo, female pupils were required to cede their places in queues to the male students.
Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School in Blackburn, which is also state-funded, has become the first school that demands its pupils wear a veil both in and out of class. The school requires its 800 pupils "to wear the hijab [Muslim headscarf] outside the school and home," "recite the Koran at least once a week" and "not bring stationery to school that contains un-Islamic images."
Tauheedul Islam Girls' High School is the flagship of the Tauheedul Charitable Trust, an organization seeking to open a network of twelve taxpayer-funded free schools across the country. According to the Sunday Times, "Ministers have approved three such schools," one of which opened this month.
Schools have historically been an important part of the extreme Islamist movements' soft power drive. In 2010, the Daily Telegraph revealed that an official from Ofsted [the British Government's body for the inspection of schools] responsible for many of the reports into British Islamic schools, Michele Messaoudi, was linked to radical Islamist organizations. Messaoudi penned the official report that absolved two schools run by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group accused by the National Union of Students of "supporting terrorism and publishing material that incites racial hatred."
The schools, according to the Telegraph, part of the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation, had received more than £113,000 of public funding. One of the Foundation's trustees, Farah Ahmed, who is also a headmistress at one of the schools, authored a Hizb-ut-Tahrir pamphlet which denounced the National Curriculum for its "systematic indoctrination to build model British citizens;" condemned "attempts to integrate Muslim children" as an effort "to produce new generations that reject Islam;" and described the teaching of English as "one of the most damaging subjects."
Another Ofsted inspector, Akram Khan-Cheema, was also the chief executive of a radical Muslim educational foundation, IBERR, whose website describes Islamic schools as "one of the most important factors which protect Muslim children from the onslaught of Euro-centrism, homosexuality, racism, and secular traditions."
Islamic schools in which the veil is enforced do not disguise their fundamentalist connections: the patron of Jameah Girls' Academy, for example, is Muhammad ibn Adam Al-Kawthari, a fundamentalist cleric who has ruled that women should be stoned to death for adultery, homosexuals may not be defended in court, thieves must have their hands amputated and that women may not refuse sex to their husbands.
The curriculum at the Madani Girls' School is mostly limited to Islamic narratives and history. Although that would be partly expected of an Islamic school, the school governors explain the agenda quite clearly: "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."
The Al Muntada Al Islami Trust, a Salafi charity, runs a number of schools in London. Al Muntada regularly hosts extremist preachers at their events and conferences, such as, and including, Muhammed al Arifi, who encourages jihad against "non-believers" and believes that "devotion to Jihad for the sake of Allah, and the desire to shed blood, to smash skulls and to sever limbs for the sake of Allah and in defence of His religion, is, undoubtedly, an honour for the believer." Nigerian newspapers have reported that Al Muntada is also funding Boko Haram, an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group.
One of the prospectuses for an Al Muntada secondary school includes bowdlerized pictures of school pupils in long outer garments, black veils and with their faces blotted out. Another picture shows pupils being taught by Abdur Raheem Green, an Islamist hate preacher who has previously spoken of a "Jewish stench" and claimed it is permissible to beat women to "bring them to goodness."
Around a dozen state-funded schools require girls to wear a veil. There has been little outcry because Ofsted handed responsibility for the inspection of dozens of Islamic schools to a "faith schools watchdog" called the Bridge Schools Inspectorate. This "watchdog" is partly controlled by Islamic schools' own lobbying and trade body, the Association of Muslim Schools.
While not all the Islamic schools that teach fundamentalist doctrines are funded by the taxpayer, the unaccountable Islamic school industry affords extremist organizations an unchecked opportunity to instil future generations of Muslim students with Islamist values -- including the imposition of full-face coverings upon young girls.
Groups such as Al Muntada are rarely heard involving themselves in the veil debate at all. Attempts to combat the threat of Islamist segregation of genders, then, do not require the question of whether banning the veil in schools or hospitals is acceptable (as currently debated by British politicians and media); instead, the government must tackle the Islamist groups themselves -- as well as the segregated institutions they have carved out for themselves within the public sphere.
There are few senior politicians who understand this: Britain's Minister for Education, Michael Gove, recently established a "counterextremism" unit within his department -- whose staff includes two former intelligence officers with expertise in counterterrorism, two academic experts and senior civil servants. Gove, speaking to the Sunday Times, said, "We do worry. There was a case in Surrey . . . where there were concerns that a maintained primary school, a local authority primary school, was being taken over by a group of parents who were on the governing body who were potentially extremist."
The forces behind the veil debate are not as expected -- there is little religious dogma involved. The ruling by Judge Peter Murphy, that a defendant must remove her niqab while giving evidence in court, for instance, was overshadowed by the fact that the accused did not wear a full face veil outside of court, and donned the niqab for her trial, according to her neighbour, because "she did not want anyone to recognize her."
Further, the recent decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to "un-ban" the veil came in response to a campaign instigated by Aaron Kiely, a (non-Muslim) Labour councillor and National Union of Students official, who condemned the deportation of terror preacher Abu Hamza as "disgraceful." Kiely is a member of Socialist Action, a Marxist group described by the journalist Nick Cohen as a "Trotskyist cult." The politician Ken Livingstone, while London Mayor, gave jobs with six-figure salaries at the public's expense, to Socialist Action members in order, as the group's members boasted, to turn London into a "socialist bastion".
In 2011, Kiely helped establish a group called the Coalition of Resistance, which claimed that the violence, theft and arson attacks during the 2011 London riots were acts of "resistance." Kiely has also expressed support for convicted terrorists, such as Khader Adnan, a leading member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terror group that conducted scores of car and suicide bombings which killed hundreds of Israeli Jews and Arabs. In 2012, Kiely was condemned by national media after it emerged he had claimed £6,667 in expenses for his position as a local councillor, despite only attending one council meeting during his term.
The veil debate seems at least partly driven, as do many media-driven debates, by whipped-up hysteria. The public argument, deemed a question of fundamental liberty, is not driven by the issue at hand, but rather by particular ideological forces -- mostly non-Muslim political agitators determined to create the illusion of bigotry even where there is none. Meanwhile, the real victims are those Muslim women, and schoolgirls, who are coerced into covering their face -- partly because non-Muslim, self-described "progressives" are working so hard to enforce those Muslim women's "rights."
As with other conflicts between Islamist values and a free society, few questions are ever put to British Muslims themselves. Those political activists who claim a veil ban is the product of racism or "Islamophobia," have instead turned to Islamist-controlled community groups to validate their claims.
Certainly, British Muslim parents are often far removed from the extremism of their self-appointed representatives. Muslim parents in Birmingham, for example, compete to send their children to King David School, a Jewish-run school comprised of mostly Muslim pupils; but where the students learn Hebrew, recite Jewish prayers and wave Israeli flags.
A common criticism of the French and Belgium governments' decisions in 2011 to prohibit the "full-face veil" in public is that politicians reputedly "did nothing to listen to Muslim women before passing criminal laws that restrict their freedom." In Britain today, are those non-Muslim activists fighting for the "right" of Muslim women to wear the veil acting any differently?