Last week UK education watchdog Ofsted announced that it would be questioning Muslim girls in primary schools who wear the hijab, prompting outrage amongst the Muslim community.
The reason for this unwarranted, invasive, intrusive questioning: the decision to wear hijab may have been forced on young girls, causing them to be sexualised at an early age.
In recent days, the Muslim community in the UK has banded together, expressing unified condemnation of the proposal, with videos and official statements being produced by numerous Muslim organisations. The notion that young girls would be examined separate from their schoolmates is something continually seen as a result of the Prevent strategy in the UK, with children being referred to counter terrorism programmes for behavior as mundane as saying Alhamdulilah after they sneeze.
The idea that Muslim children are to be held to yet another imposed standard of “normal” is rightly slammed.
But beyond the blatant gendered islamophobic implications of the policy itself, this discussion is also present within the Muslim community: should young girls be wearing hijab, even when not needed? For many Muslims, the answer is no and some have also supported the recent proposal, stating that the Islamic dress does sexualise young girls earlier then necessary.
Whilst this sounds laughable to many Muslims, when considering the way in which the hijab has been presented, it is not so surprising.
For years, especially in the post 9/11 era, the word “hijab” has been associated with the term “modesty” more than anything else. Today, with modest fashion hitting the catwalks, being advertised as clothing for Muslim and non-Muslim women, and securing its place as a multimillion-dollar industry, the two have almost become interchangeable in the mainstream.
For most people this understanding has been a consequence of reading one of the Quranic verses that prescribes hijab and also mentions modesty:
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear therof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms…” (24:31)
But it would be naïve to not also recognise that many Muslim women have used the idea of modesty alone to dictate how they should dress, arguing that it is the spirit, not the specifics of the Islamic dress-code, that is important.
Now for the myth buster: Muslim women do not wear hijab to be modest.
Whilst the hijab is intrinsically a concealing dress code, modesty is a relative term, different for everyone dependent on his or her social and cultural experience. Islam, on the other hand, has defined with precision how and which areas of a woman’s body should be covered.
Modesty is mentioned in one of the verses prescribing the hijab; however, scholars of the Qur’anic sciences (including Ibn Kathir, Al Qurtubi and At-Tabari) have not identified it as a reason (‘ilah) for the garment; rather it is a wisdom (hikmah) and a benefit.
In fact, several areas of Islamic law do not have reasoning behind their obligations. Food is another such area (contrary to the reasoning some give, Muslims are not forbidden to eat pork because pigs are dirty).
This broader understanding of the hijab eradicates the notion that those who wear it are always protected from sexual abuse and harassment. It also further reinforces the notion that modesty is in one’s behaviour as well as our dress, and explains the broader necessity for other Islamic practices, such as segregation in social settings.
So, if not for the sake of modesty, why do women wear hijab?
The answer: as an act of worship alone. It is a deed done solely for the sake of Allah ﷻ, a mark of devotion and a sacrifice of our desires. Everything else we may or may not observe from it are simply benefits, be that good character, protection from harassment, or the prevention of valuing yourself based on your appearance.
But today, the permanent connection that has been established between the hijab and modesty has led many non-Muslims, and some Muslims, to misunderstand its core objective.
So is it really any wonder that, after years of telling people the hijab is simply about modesty, when people see little girls who have no need to cover themselves wear the hijab, it is assumed that we are perceiving them as immodest or sexually attractive?
With many Muslim girls now also expressly terming the hijab a fashion, a political statement, or an expression of their identity, is it any surprise that people think children should not be beholden to such ideas that they cannot truly understand?
The only way to combat these arguments is to reorient our narrative on hijab as an act of
worship above all else. It then makes sense that like prayer, which Muslim children are encouraged to observe from the age of seven in order to make it habitual, young girls wearing hijab at a young age is simply a way of teaching them to love it.
The fact that a plethora of young girls beg their parents to let them wear it when going to the mosque, even before it is necessary, is often simply because they want to look like their mothers and sisters, and is more easily explained when our dress is understood as an act of worship, not revolving around the necessity of being covered.
The fact that Ofsted is choosing to investigate Muslim girls is undoubtedly first and foremost an islamophobic policy, once again used to alienate our community. In an age where children as young as three are studying sex education and choosing to change genders at four, the allegation that the hijab causes sexualisation is ironic, to say the least.
But we as Muslims must take responsibility for the way in which we have presented Islam to the masses, and even to those within our community. This should be a call-to-action and a lesson to not continually seek reasons for our acts of worship that make them more palatable for a society that claims to be based on logic, but rather stand true to our values and principles alone.
Aisha Hasan is the founder of the Qarawiyyin Project. A researcher in international development and the political economy of the Muslim world, she is also a student of Islamic Studies and a Quran teacher. She has been active in her Muslim community for several years, appearing on television, radio shows, and delivering talks at universities around the UK.