A new report by Policy Exchange discusses how Islamist groups have dominated the discourse surrounding religious clothing in the UK and beyond, potentially limiting the freedom of choice for Muslim women in matters of clothing.
The think tank emphasises how public fear of Islamophobia can lead to Islamist groups stifling open debate about religious attire in the UK, even though women in many Islamic countries are protesting against the hijab’s imposition as an oppressive garment.
The report, titled The Symbolic Power of the Veil, recommends the Government should provide clearer guidance to schools regarding dress codes and religious attire, and provide examples.
Under such guidance, the think tank says, schools may accommodate religious headwear such as the hijab, but they should not require it as part of the uniform.
According to the report, the Government should also resist any definition of Islamophobia that restricts criticism of religious practices, including the dress code.
The key findings and recommendations in the report are backed by Labour MP Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr), who said: “A certain proportion of Muslim women may wish to wear a hijab or a niqab to publicly demonstrate their Muslim identity.
“But the wearing of the hijab clearly does not represent all Muslim women. And it is grossly insensitive to those Muslim women in Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere who are compelled against their wishes to wear the hijab to declare that it does.”
Another recommendation is that the Government should avoid endorsing or promoting specific religious attire.
It singles out the Foreign Office for celebrating World Hijab Day in 2018, with hijabs being distributed among civil servants.
The report’s author, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia and senior fellow at Policy Exchange, Sir John Jenkins, said: “Recent events in Iran have revealed once again not just the symbolic power of Islamic veiling and other vestimentary codes but also the way they can be – and are – deployed to discipline individuals, groups and indeed entire societies in the interests of authoritarian and unaccountable political and religious elites.”
The report’s co-author, human rights advocate Professor Elham Manea, added: “Freedom of opinion and speech is not some kind of extra, to be used as a cheerful slogan whenever we see fit.
“It has a purpose: to speak truth to power, to challenge hegemonic authoritarian and religious orders, and to push for reforms and for the protection of individual basic rights.
“How are we going to criticise the harmful aspects of social and religious practices and customs if the immediate reaction is accusations of Islamophobia?”