CAIRO – The chief inspector in UK education inspection body has raised a fresh controversy after threatening to penalize schools where Muslim face-veil, or niqab, is worn, facing huge criticism from both Muslims and educationalists.
“I believe he’s totally wrong and this is totally unjust. Ofsted is picking on faith schools, especially Muslim schools. There is nothing wrong with wearing the head veil,” Dr Sheik Howjat Ramzy, director of Iqra Institute in Oxford and former head of an Islamic school, told the Daily Telegraph.
“Not many pupils wear the veil,” he said, estimating the number at about 500 students.
“The veil doesn’t make pupils intelligent or not. It gives them their identity and some security. Pupils have the right to wear the veil if they go to Islamic schools. That is no problem.”
The controversy erupted when Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector in Ofsted, wrote on Tuesday to all inspectors instructing them to mark down institutions where they believe the veil hinders “positive social interaction”.
He said that people need to listen to David Cameron’s concerns that “our liberal values, our liberal West values, are protected”.
The announcement comes after Cameron said that he will give his backing to public authorities that put in place “proper and sensible” rules to ban women from wearing face veils in comments which will reignite debates.
The National Secular Society supported Sir Michael’s move.
“Full face veils are obviously inappropriate in a classroom and inhibit communication between staff and pupils,” Stephen Evans, National Secular Society campaigns manager, said.
“There should be every expectation that pupils and staff can communicate and identify each-other easily in schools. School dress codes will not generally permit face coverings to be worn and no concessions should be made to those who wish to cover their faces on religious grounds.”
Leaders of Britain’s main Islamic group urged an accommodation for the issue of face-veil in schools.
“We are a country that prides itself in accommodation and fair play. It is a shame that the niqab, the full face veil that a minority of Muslim women wears, has become a polarizing issue when it need not be. Accommodation can also be made around the niqab as well and Ofsted need not have resorted to the megaphone of the media to show that it is flexing its muscles,” a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said.
Along with Muslims, teachers criticized Ofsted’s move as well.
“We do not think that it is the role of Ofsted inspectors to judge schools on uniform policies and dress codes. Inspectors should focus on what schools achieve rather than what people wear,” Leora Cruddas, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said.
“Schools make decisions on uniform policies and dress codes with the needs of their staff and pupils in mind and take into consideration relevant educational, welfare and equalities issues.”
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Effective communication between pupils and staff is essential to effective teaching and learning.
“However, Sir Michael Wilshaw once again has chosen to issue punitive dictates to threaten schools through the use of ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgments rather than enabling them to develop their own sensible and appropriate policies on the wearing of religious clothing at school. Rather than assisting school leaders this will have the effect of alienating many staff and pupils.”
Dr. Andrew Clapham, senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, has also criticized the move, saying there was no research to support Ofsted’s veil penalty for schools.
“Ofsted’s threat to penalize institutions where the Muslim veil is worn has no basis in research. There is no credible evidence base to suggest that “wearing a piece of clothing on one’s head has an impact on intellectual or academic ability,” he said.
“Moreover, the veil is no more or less physically inhibiting than a whole range of other headwear. Consequently, it appears bemusing that this piece of clothing should be signaled specifically as having a hindrance on learning. To claim that the veil, as Sir Michael Wilshaw the Chief Inspector suggests, can impact negatively on “positive social interactions” is also lacking a basis in research.
“Penalizing an institution because of a piece of clothing raises a whole range of questions which appear beyond the remit of the school inspectorate. If Ofsted is to pursue this initiative, then empirical evidence should be analyzed prior to making such a policy decision.”
Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.
As for the face veil, the majority of Muslim scholars believe that a woman is not obliged to cover her face or hands.
Scholars, however, believe that it is up to women to decide whether to take on the veil.