When I was five years old, I remember being sent to school one morning wearing a lovely purple and white crocheted poncho and matching beret. I was especially pleased because it was school photograph day and I was feeling particularly special.
Unfortunately my headmistress had a very different idea. Upon seeing me in the lineup, she proceeded to forcibly remove my hat and poncho because it was not allowed for the official school photograph. I remember being very upset and distressed because my mother had lovingly made my ponytails so that my hat could sit nicely between them. Mr Villiers, the headmistress, not only took off my poncho and hat but in the process ruined my hair. I was visibly upset and only calmed down when Mrs Williams, my form teacher, promised to bring in her camera the next day and take photos of me in my new poncho. It was a promise she kept. She also kept the pictures as I discovered thirteen years later when my A level history teacher, a Mr Williams, presented them to me one morning in the 6th form common room.
This incident took place almost half a century ago. And yet the incident and the emotion I felt at that time, still remain with me today. I was attacked for the way I dressed but more importantly I felt it was an attack on my mother for doing something ‘wrong’ in preparing me for school that morning. There was no school uniform, so why suddenly should I be told I couldn’t wear my poncho?
The reports today about OFSTED looking to question four year olds about the reason they wear the hijab in school, reminded me of this incident that has remained with me all these years. When a mother dresses a child for school in the morning it is knowing what is and is not acceptable as part of the dress code policy. For many years I wore a grey skirt to school, because the uniform policy made it clear; girls wear skirts and boys wear trousers. Not something I suspect any school would try and enforce for want of being accused of sexism and discrimination. If schools do not want young children in primary education to wear hijabs in school, this needs to be made explicitly clear within the school uniform policy. This is not about racism, being islamophobic or discriminatory. It is common sense. There is no religious edict that warrants girls under the age of puberty, whether that is eleven or thirteen, to wear an item of clothing designed to ‘protect their modesty’. Many schools forbid jewellery of any nature for boys and girls. To subject a young child to questioning about why they are dressed in a particular way is ludicrous as it will always warrant the same response “because my mother dresses me”. A four year old will wear a hijab because they want to. Because they want to mimic their mother, grandmother, sister or aunty. Have you ever tried to argue with a four year old who wants to wear something, whether that is a hijab or underpants over their trousers to look like Superman? Questioning a child can and will leave them feeling alienated, different and could potentially lead to comments in the playground, bullying and name calling from their friends and peers. This may sound trivial, but it can be very upsetting for a young child.
The only questioning that needs to take place is that of the school and their uniform policies. If we do not want young children wearing hijab to school, this needs to be explicitly written within the uniform policy. If the school allows the hijab, to question the child is nonsensical and potentially harmful to the school, the child and more importantly the schools relationship with the parents and the wider community.