The analysis of hijab, Islamic religious clothing based on codes of female modesty, which David Pendletone asserts in his article in Solidarity 517 is commonplace amongst many Muslim-background feminists, amongst whom the issue of state bans is highly contested.
Iranian writer Chadhortt Djavan, who does support state bans on hijab for young girls, wrote in her pamphlet ‘Bas les Voiles’ (Down with Veils): “What does veiling do to a girl child? It turns her into a sexual object [...] it defines her essentially by and for men’s eyes.” Algerian socialist-feminist Marieme Helie Lucas, who has opposed state bans of the French type, has written extensively of how hijab and veiling has developed into a cultural-political practise posed in religious terms, asserted by Islamists to promote a conservative interpretation of Islamic cultural-political identity.
Such views are not commonplace on the left. During the past two decades, various tendencies on the left, most prominently the Socialist Workers Party, have adopted a view of Islamic religiosity that sees it almost necessarily as an expression of a progressive anti-imperialism. The argument runs that, since Muslims are discriminated against in the west and since the “Muslim world” is in a secondary position relative to US imperialism, the practise of Islam itself becomes a form of resistance.
Those who took our politics to their highest ever peak would abhor such a view: the Bolsheviks conducted vigorous campaigns against religious obscurantism in general and against veiling and hijab in particular, despite the very much oppressed position Muslim-majority national and ethnic groups occupied within the Tsarist Empire the Bolsheviks sought to dismantle.
They managed to combine a militant hostility to the patriarchal oppression inherent in conservative religious practise with a militant commitment to the democratic, national, and civil rights of the Muslim-majority peoples Tsarism had colonised.
Reconnecting to those traditions of militant secularism, which have deteriorated significantly under the influence not only of a vulgar “anti-imperialism” but also a post-modernist cultural relativism, would be a very good thing indeed.
It does not at all follow, however, that the way to do this is for socialists to advocate state bans on hijab or other religious practises connected to gender oppression.
Such bans - or, more likely, the campaigns for them - will inevitably be exploited by those who oppose Islam not on the basis of a secularist or feminist critique of religion but on the basis of an ethnonationalist hostility to Muslim immigrants.
Context and agency matter, and David makes his argument in the context of a vicious and ongoing campaign of demonisation of Muslims in the tabloid press, given license by the dogwhistles of senior politicians.
Should the state, under the administration of such people, move to ban hijab from any sphere of public life it would certainly not be doing so on the basis of a commitment to secularism and women’s rights, but as a means of protecting its right flank and playing to the nationalist gallery whipped into an anti-migrant frenzy by the context of Brexit.
David’s argument also relies on an unsubstantiated assertion that the wearing of hijab amongst primary-school-aged girls is increasing, with the implication that state action is necessary to protect the rights of children whose ability to meaningfully consent to participation in gendered religious or cultural practises is more complicated than with older girls
Other than the National Secular Society’s 2017 study into compulsory hijab for primary-aged children in specifically Islamic religious schools (a slightly different context), I am not aware of any definitive statistical research on the matter. If David knows of some, he should provide it. To advocate a state ban on the basis of impressionistic evidence is not good
To advocate one only on hijab, and not on the perhaps less visible but similarly oppressive cultural practises of other conservative faith groups, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews, risks feeding into a sense of discrimination and singling out.
I have no doubt that David, who undoubtedly had in mind the context of what has been a specific and live issue in the British education system as recently as last year, with the furore over headteacher Neena Lall’s attempt to ban hijab in her east London primary school, does not intend this. Nevertheless, the risk is there.
The practise of hijab can be targeted by a ban because of its nature as a physical item. But all religions, especially in their conservative and orthodox forms, are patriarchal and oppressive, at the level of ideas. We cannot simply call on the state to “ban” such oppression; we can only look to build an assertive secularist, feminist, and LGBT+ liberation movement
that can confront it at its ideological root.
The agency that will push back oppressive religious or cultural customs is primarily feminist and secularist movements within faith communities. Those of us outside such communities can contribute best by supporting and amplifying their struggles, not by calling for bans.
Some Muslim-background feminists do call for a ban on the hijab in primary schools. In February 2018, Iranian-British comedian and writer Shappi Khorshandi spoke up in defence of Neena Lall, saying: “Let little girls have the freedom to feel the wind in their hair as they tear around the playground with their friends.” The argument is compelling and should be respected and engaged with without simply being denounced, and certainly Lall should have been defended from the vicious campaign against her that decried her as a racist and compared her to Hitler. But ultimately a ban is too blunt an instrument in this case, and in this context.
David is right that lines have to be drawn somewhere. The protests against LGBT+ education in primary schools pose the question: to what extent should socialists advocate the state intervene into schools against the “right” of parents to educate their children in their own religious ideas?
I am certainly for compulsory RSE, including LGBT+ education, and against the right of religious parents to withdraw their children from science or PE classes. And schools should certainly encourage an atmosphere of freedom and choice in which girls and young women who want to question and potentially reject the strictures of their parents’ religion are able to do so.
I do not believe a state ban on hijab would do this. More likely it will have the affect of increasing the sense of social siege under which Muslim communities as a whole feel, making the development of dissenting politics harder, not easier. The left has to combine a vigorous defence of Muslim communities against racism, from both the press, the far right, and the state, with a vigorous campaign for secularism and feminism, including secularist and feminist education, primarily in solidarity with those asserting such ideas and critiques within Muslim and other faith communities.