On a warm summer evening last June, Rachida Serroukh took her 11-year-old daughter to an introductory evening for new pupils at Holland Park School in West London. Sometimes called the ‘socialist Eton’, the school is one of the few well-performing comprehensives in Kensington and Chelsea, a borough whose stark social and racial inequalities have occupied national attention in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Serroukh, a single mother of three who had attended the school herself, was delighted that her daughter had got a place. Part way through the evening, a staff member took Serroukh aside, told her that the school did not allow face veils on its premises, and asked her to leave via a back exit. Serroukh later asked to see the school’s formal policy and discovered there wasn’t one; her presence had been enough, it seemed, to bring one into being on the spot. She decided to sue for discrimination.
Britain is one of the last major European countries without a legal ban on the face veil. While there are the same concerns here about the integration of Muslims as there are across Europe, consecutive UK governments have preferred to avoid the spectacle of burqini arrests on the beach. Until the late 2000s, this light touch meant that Britain had a reputation as the safest, most welcoming part of Europe for Muslims. European women who felt they could no longer practise their religion freely on the continent sought religious refuge here. In The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman, Anabel Inge’s rich portrait of the small but growing British Salafi community, one woman describes her move to Birmingham as a ‘petit hijra’, or small migration, the same term used for a believer’s move to an Islamic state, in an echo of the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina.
All that fell away in the aftermath of the 7 July attacks, which prompted a dramatic shift in the Blair government’s attitude towards integration and in its interaction with Muslims. ‘British values’ began to be evoked: integration no longer cut it. The wearing of the headscarf, historically never something politicians had worried about, rose to become a national policy concern and was seen as not only un-British, but as a state security concern. In 2015 David Cameron called on institutions to devise their own ‘sensible rules’ about face veils, and Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, promised that schools would take a firm lead. He declared that ‘our liberal West values’ must be protected and added that ‘the Muslim community needs to listen’ because British society has come a long way ‘to ensure that we have equality for women’ and ‘mustn’t go backwards’.
Boris Johnson feigned a similar devotion to common sense when, in his new column for the Telegraph, he described Denmark’s recent ban on the face veil as a mistake, but in the process likened Muslim women who wear it to ‘letterboxes’ and argued that schools, presumably like the one in Holland Park, had the right to ask women turning up like ‘bank robbers’ to remove their veils. Johnson referred casually to burkas, the tent-like covering worn almost exclusively by women in Afghanistan, with a grille for the eyes, when he meant the niqab, the familiar face veil with an eye slit. Johnson’s comments and his refusal to apologise for them embedded him comfortably in the headlines for days, looming over a country that now finds itself arguing about Islamophobia, burqa/niqab nomenclature, and Muslim women’s oppression.
The belief that the face veil was a marker of extremism didn’t come from empirical research showing that women who wore them were more likely to commit acts of violence. In fact, in its research into what pushed young people towards extremism the Brookings Institution discovered that the opposite was true, finding evidence that one factor was living in an environment where the veil was aggressively policed in public spaces. In European societies where Muslims remain an underclass, as Rafia Zakaria writes in her slim but formidable volume Veil, forbidding women to cover themselves without offering any ‘concomitant welcome into European public culture’ was a dangerous course.
The Brookings study discussed Francophone political culture as it has evolved in France, Belgium and Tunisia (a former French protectorate) – all countries where veil bans are, or have been, seen as important. Olivier Decottignies, a French career diplomat, called the research ‘surprisingly shallow’ and argued that veil bans were a symptom of extremism, not its cause. The real culprit, he claimed, was Salafi Islam, which ‘was hardly a French export’. Salafism is a puritanical strain of Sunni Islam that emerged in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century, arriving in Europe in the 1980s as a projection of Saudi soft power. It is often blamed for present-day Sunni extremism, though it is almost impossible to say precisely what constitutes Salafism, since so many of its tenets overlap with orthodox, conservative Sunni Islam. It is usually simply said that Salafis are theologically averse to shades of grey and tend to anathematise their enemies.
The story of how face veils became a regular sight on European streets cannot be disentangled from this history, but even Muslims themselves wrestle with how to make sense of it. The wearing of face veils causes dismay to many older Muslims, those who arrived in places like London’s East End in the 1950s, eager to prosper and to retain the cultural Sufi Islam of the Subcontinent, and who now see their British grandchildren walking the streets proudly in Saudi-style thobes and niqabs. As the numbers wearing the face veil multiplied in the 2000s, so did fears about the thoughts of the women under those folds of fabric. Inge found that nearly all of the Salafi women she followed in her research decided to wear the face veil against the wishes – sometimes despite the threats – of family members, who saw it as too extreme, too Arab, too rebellious. Officials often argue that Muslim women are too submissive to challenge extremist views even within their own families. But women who wear a garment that annoys their families, that provokes regular verbal abuse and leads to their being pelted with food in public are something other than submissive. Of the 23 British women Inge studied, nearly all said they were regularly the target of abusive comments, five reported bananas or eggs being thrown at them, five had been shoved or tripped up, three had been followed, two had been spat on, two threatened with violence and one had had her veil ripped off.
Why would any young European woman decide to wear a face veil in the 21st century? The appeal, argues Zakaria, who chose to cover her face as a girl in Pakistan, often lies in a quest for belonging, the ‘drug of approval and approbation’, often administered by other women. Inge arrives at a similar conclusion. In the highly competitive ‘Islamic marketplace’ of contemporary Britain, where multiple sects vie for followers, Salafi women’s long robes and face veils buy acceptance in tight-knit and by all accounts cliquey religious circles, and send a message of non-conformity to society at large. But not all Salafi women cover their faces, and not all women who cover their faces are Salafis. Muslim women who are Deobandi or Tablighi, the two biggest Sunni denominations in this country, are increasingly doing so too. If you were to ask them why, they might tell you that they are reclaiming a lost practice, that it is an active choice and is spiritually directed. Their parents might tell you this is rubbish, and that Saudi Arabia has ruined Islam in this country just as it ruined it in Pakistan.
While women’s intentions in wearing face veils are unknowable, Theresa May’s government has decided to assume the worst. She has continued to follow the policy outlined in 2015 by David Cameron, who argued that citizens who failed to espouse ‘liberal values’ – gender equality as defined by women’s visibility – were ‘providing succour’ to violent extremists. That year had seen high-profile terror attacks, whole British families leaving the country to join Isis, and a Sun cover that claimed that ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ had ‘sympathy for jihadis’ – quite enough to make a face-veiled Whitechapel housewife look like a threat. But recasting the face veil as the garment of terrorism, Zakaria writes, ‘dictates that Muslim women are all in possession of cruel intentions, each of them secretly marching towards jihad, guilty or not, but never innocent’. It places everyone who wears a face veil – ‘the kindly Muslim mum, the shy Muslim wife’, the stoic Muslim grandmother and the Saudi royal at Harvey Nichols – on the spectrum of militant violence, as incubators, enablers or fellow-travellers.
The UK government explains its growing preoccupation with Muslim women’s attire as an example of ‘safeguarding’. Monitoring a young woman who starts to wear the veil for signs of radicalisation is safeguarding, just like removing children from families that support extremist ideology is safeguarding, just like protecting children from paedophiles is safeguarding. This policy underpins Ofsted’s recent clumsy intervention in the debate about the age at which Muslim girls should be allowed to start wearing the simple headscarf. This seems a problem for parents to decide if there ever was one, but last November the current head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, told school inspectors to question Muslim primary schoolgirls wearing them, to decide whether or not the headscarves were sexualising pre-pubescent girls.
Ofsted received a letter signed by more than a thousand faith leaders and teachers calling the recommendation ‘kneejerk, discriminatory, and institutionally racist’. Within a month Spielman backpedalled, saying that Muslim girls would not be questioned at school, but then in February she backed a primary school headteacher in East London who had banned the headscarf. Headscarves on little girls provoke a perhaps understandable uneasiness in people who have limited experience of living among Muslims. They used to provoke discomfort in me, until I had occasion to spend time with Muslims far beyond the confines of my secular, Westernised, upper-class background, after which I realised that for a great many families far more socially representative than mine, the headscarf secured girls and women access to public space, and therefore to education. But the Ofsted hijab row was never really about safeguarding. It was about the way the state felt obliged, now that it had conflated Muslim conservatism with extremism, to nudge the community towards liberalism.
There is a necessary debate to be had about gender equality among Muslims. Britain’s largely South Asian Muslim community is highly conservative in a way that often makes life unbearable for some of its young women, and to a different and less immediate extent, for young men. There are suffocating proscriptions around marriage, problems with forced marriage, domestic violence, stark double standards in the treatment of daughters and sons, and taboos around confronting and reporting sexual abuse. (Many of these behaviours are imported from South Asia, and interestingly, rejecting them has encouraged young people to seek religious knowledge and identity from urban, Mecca-trained imams.) But the possibility of shedding this atavistic conservatism while retaining religious values has been lost in the acrimony, fear and mutual suspicion that now grips the Muslim community.
Is it feasible to encourage people to reconsider inherited patriarchal tendencies while diagnosing these same patterns of behaviour as pathologies that lead to bombings and beheadings? The An-Nisa Society, which supported Muslim women in the family, publicly broke with the government in 2009, claiming that the Home Office had used engagement with it as a way of surveilling women. Other grassroots groups were obliged to shape their work around extremism, even when it had nothing to do with their remit. The possession of Home Office funding became divisive and eventually a taint. The government also cut ties with swathes of mainstream Muslim organisations in cities across the country, often citing their attitudes towards Israel or Western foreign policy. It began to promote a small group of reformers it felt represented the right face of ‘British Islam’. These reformers, often women who claimed they were lone grassroots fighters in the battle against gender fundamentalism, stirred great resentment, especially after it emerged that some of their speeches and tweets had been produced by the Home Office itself. The fragile conversation within the community around women, families and equality, already contending with entrenched resistance, collapsed entirely.
The Ofsted headscarf row took place in this context. The handful of Muslim activists who supported Ofsted’s stance claimed they were being intimidated by Islamist critics; these critics, who were often non-veiled women, asked why the activists were repeating clichés about Islam and publishing their concerns in notoriously Islamophobic newspapers. Muslim parents said no one had spoken to them. The teachers who wrote to Spielman argued that many Muslim girls were simply copying their mothers and asked whether Ofsted would also be questioning young girls who wore ‘lipstick or stilettos’? Hijabs are no different from lipstick and stilettos, in the sense that it is the observer who assigns them meaning: the kitten heels or lacy tops worn by a little girl at a private school in St John’s Wood whose mother works in fashion would be judged differently from the same clothes worn by the daughter of a cleaner attending a state primary in Stepney. Such garments might be worn out of edgy chic, maternal fatigue or ‘could be interpreted as sexualisation’. We would be in the realm of The Handmaid’s Tale to think it’s the state’s role to find out.
The battles around the veil and face veil, as well as the public discord over whether the freedom to wear one can ever be a ‘British value’, stand in marked contrast to the cheerful embrace of the headscarf by commerce. There is no data on the number of Muslim women who wear it in this country, but the ever growing ‘modesty market’ seems to indicate an increase. Vogue reported on the ‘Cool New Generation Redefining Modest Style’ at London Modest Fashion Week, a corollary to London Fashion Week that is now in its second year. Liberty joined forces with a British vlogger to demonstrate how to tie a turban with one of its patterned scarves. Debenhams now stocks headscarves. Major brands from Zara to H&M and Topshop feature hijabi models in their advertising and produce hijab or ‘modest’ collections. What fashion is belatedly recognising as a growing market has long been evident to scholars like Harvard’s Leila Ahmed, who documented the resurgence of the veil across the West and the Middle East in her prescient 2011 book A Quiet Revolution. The ‘new veil’, as Ahmed calls it, signifies not piety but identity – it is now a garment that challenges everything from anti-Muslim racism, structural discrimination and even cultural patriarchy, and stresses transnational Muslim identity.
For millennial Muslim women in the UK, the veil, for political, inherited and aesthetic reasons, denotes cultural opposition. Anyone who has spent time around young Muslim women while being charged to monitor veil-wearing as a possible sign of radicalisation – as academics like me are under the government’s Prevent duty – realises that consumerism and peer pressure are the most important factors in the adoption of the headscarf. Teaching at Kingston University in South-West London, where Muslim women form a sizeable percentage of the student body, I noticed that some Muslim girls start their first year unveiled, only to discover that hijabi fashionistas are the ruling clique on campus. They return for second year wearing a headscarf or turban. Hijabs are cool, just like beards are cool, just like Muslim piety is cool; wearing them gives meaning to a perplexing, unjust world and lends the wearer a coherent, dignified transnational identity (global Muslim rather than reviled national ethnic British Pakistani or British Bangladeshi). It is the language of multiple rebellions: against keep your head down, ‘coconut’ parents; against the state that views your religion as a security problem; against a press that delights in your racist humiliation.
One of the most successful arguments Isis used to recruit young Muslims in Europe is that their home countries won’t tolerate their dual identities as European citizens and Muslims. In this, as in so many things, the extremist group understood Muslim millennials’ attachment to outward symbols of their faith better than policymakers did. Isis whispered: come here and dress as conservatively as you wish, cover up, you can still be feminists, you can still have agency, here no one will measure your worth and strength by how much skin you show and how good your hair looks. All of these influences on Muslim girls, particularly the social anxiety that makes them cling to the markers of Islam even as they are secularising their lifestyles, means that the stigmatisation and banning of any kind of veil doesn’t seem likely to be useful. Despite this, more than half of the UK population now supports a full ban on face veils in public spaces.
As Rachida Serroukh discovered that evening at Holland Park School, the pretext for banning the face veil will increasingly be security, because safeguarding is eminently ‘sensible’. But people tend not to want to change their behaviour when they feel they are being punished. And when it comes to the face veil, Inge points out that the severe limitations it imposes on public interaction often make women give up wearing it anyway. Timothy Winter, dean of studies at Wolfson College, Cambridge, coined the term ‘Salafi burnout’ to describe such a phenomenon. He believes that the faith of such believers, driven by worldly insecurities and confusions, is ‘liable to vanish as suddenly as it came’. His concern is that, in the meanwhile, their radicalism is disruptive to the majority of Muslims. There used to be prominent British Muslims, like the Conservative politician Sayeeda Warsi, who acknowledged the concerns on all sides of these debates and tried to maintain a semblance of a public discussion. But at present, even she – perhaps the most people-pleasing Muslim to hold high office in this country – is shunned by her party and disparaged in the newspapers for having links with ‘extremists’. Today there is virtually no debate about equality between Muslim men and women, or between Muslim Britons and the rest of society. In the meantime, Serroukh is asked by Holland Park School to leave by the back exit and remain invisible.