This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
In September 2014, a 16-year-old at a north London state school made national headlines. The student had attended Camden School for Girls for five years, but over the summer decided to start wearing the niqab—an Islamic veil that covers the whole face. The school said that she could not return for sixth form unless she removed the veil, on the grounds that staff need to be able to see a student's face "to read the visual cues it provides" and verify his or her identity.
The school's decision to ban the student was controversial. A year earlier, in September 2013, Birmingham's Metropolitan College had capitulated on a decision to ban a student who wore the veil—an equally contentious decision. Should a student be restricted from accessing education because of what he or she chooses to wear? Or can the choice over clothing be reasonably restricted within schools?
This week, the head of Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills) waded into the debate. Sir Michael Wilshaw said that he would support any heads who banned the "inappropriate wearing" of a Muslim face veil (variously known as the niqab or burqa). He expressed concern that some heads were "coming under pressure" to permit the wearing of the veil by staff or pupils, and said that schools could be downgraded to an inadequate rating if the veil was hindering communication and effective teaching. The Department of Education has previously stated uniform policy is up to schools, but expressed support for Wilshaw's revised stance.
For a scrap of fabric worn by a tiny, tiny proportion of British women, the face veil has attracted a disproportionate amount of attention over the years. A general ban has been debated in Parliament, with tabloid headlines sporadically exclaiming about its dangers. Never mind the fact that there is no data on how many women in the UK actually wear the face veil. Estimates put it in the hundreds, rather than the thousands—a number so small it is difficult to see why it merits a policy response.
"Why are we even talking about this? It is a non-issue," says Shaista Gohir, chair of the Muslim Women's Network. "You do get girls wearing face veils in colleges and sixth form but you're talking such tiny numbers. When Ofsted say any school who allows face veils will be downgraded, well how many under-16 girls do we know that have worn a veil? It's exaggerating the actual situation."
That said, she does support a ban on face veils for under-16s in schools. "It's an impediment to education," she says. "When you're communicating, it's not just what you say or hear, it's also your facial expressions giving a lot away about how you might be feeling. A teacher can look at pupils and think they look confused or stressed or upset. There's an imbalance there when you have 29 children in the class getting the full benefits of teaching and one person isn't getting it. We need equality. And is it really an informed choice for an under-16?" Over 16, Shaista points out, it becomes odd to ban a piece of clothing, given that you can have sex and get married, and you are attending school voluntarily.
Many teachers feel it is too small an issue to merit an intervention from Ofsted. "I haven't ever seen a person in a face veil, let alone a student—and most of the kids I teach are Muslim," said Camille, a teacher in Wembley, London. "What worries me is that we are talking about children, and we are talking about girls. It's frustrating to see them spoken for, to see officials arbitrarily making the statement that they can't communicate because they are in a veil. What research is that based on? It seems to me like a subjective statement."
Ahmed is a teacher in central Birmingham, who followed the controversy over the niqab at Birmingham Metropolitan College in 2013. "In a decade as a teacher in this city, I've taught maybe two or three girls wearing face veils, all of them over 16. If I'm completely honest, yes, it can be disconcerting and to an extent I can understand why teachers might not like it," he says. "But then you think—what is the alternative? You ban those girls from coming to school altogether? Remove them from a school with a mixed intake and force them further into an enclosed community? In my experience, it's so infrequent that you can afford to make an allowance to facilitate that teenager's education. The idea of downgrading schools on that basis—something that's likely to be one or two children every few years at the very, very most—seems overly punitive to me. It adds to this idea that Muslims are drowning out a British way of life when in reality, we're talking about the exception, not the rule."
Put simply, face veils are visually shocking in a culture where we are used to seeing faces. But the gleeful media response to the suggestion of restrictions illustrates the way that this piece of fabric has become emblematic of a whole host of other things: a division of cultures, a clash between East and West, between feminism and religious freedom. It is difficult to think of another explanation for the disproportionate attention given to something worn by so few people.
"What bothers me about this announcement is that it comes after the news story that a kid who wrote 'I live in a terrorist house' instead of 'terraced house' was subject to an official intervention, and after David Cameron's announcement about English lessons and 'submissive Muslim women,'" says Camille. "It firmly presses an Islamaphobic message. This face veil announcement offers a solution to something that is clearly not a widespread problem. Ofsted and teachers have never had a supportive relationship. It's disingenuous to suggest that by introducing this punitive measure, Ofsted is somehow supporting struggling head teachers who don't know how to manage this issue."
By banning something currently worn by so few women, the government may have an unexpected impact. "Teenagers: What do they like doing? Rebelling, being different," says Shaista. "It probably makes them want to put the veil on."
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