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House of Commons Hansard
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World Hijab Day
01 February 2017
Volume 620

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Heather Wheeler.)

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Thank you very much for granting this Adjournment debate on the subject of World Hijab Day, Mr Speaker.

Hijab is an Arabic word meaning barrier or partition. In Islam, however, it has a broader meaning. The most visible form of hijab is the head covering that many Muslim women wear. I should say now that I feel that Muslim women should wear it only if they want to wear it; it absolutely should be a matter of choice. Although Hijab Day was started in New York by Nazma Khan, the movement has been organised almost solely over social media networking sites. For many people, the hijab is a symbol of oppression and divisiveness. It is a visible target that often bears the brunt of a larger debate about Islam in the west. Although Hijab Day is designed to counteract such controversies, it encourages non-Muslim women or even Muslim women like me who do not ordinarily wear a hijab to don one and experience what it is like to do so as part of a bid to foster better understanding.

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I commend my hon. Friend for securing this Adjournment debate today. At a time when Muslims are being demonised by an extreme right-wing agenda on the other side of the Atlantic, does she agree that initiatives such as Hijab Day serve a very important purpose not only to celebrate our diversity, but to break down barriers across different communities?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier this week in the Chamber, we must not be afraid to stand up to racism and xenophobia where it exists, but I fear that, sometimes, we lose our ability to do that when we see who the proponent is. We must never do that.

The Hijab Day founder said:

“Growing up in the Bronx, in New York City, I experienced a great deal of discrimination due to my hijab. I figured the only way to end discrimination is if we ask our fellow sisters to experience hijab themselves.”

In middle school, she was known as Batman or Ninja. She said:

“When I moved on to college, it was just after 9/11, so they would call me Osama Bin-Laden or terrorist. It was awful. I figured the only way to end discrimination is if we ask our fellow sisters to experience hijab themselves.”

A report, which was published by the Scottish Government social research team in 2011, discussed the experience of Scottish Muslim women wearing the hijab. This was one case study—a personal story:

“You get looks...It makes you feel very uncomfortable. It makes you feel very unwelcome as well. By a few people I will add. Yeah, the majority of people are quite nice and respect you. ...I think some people still have in their minds that we’re Muslims and we’re not meant to be here, but...that’s what I feel. Probably some don’t feel that way. Probably they just think that’s the way we’re dressed.”

The story went on:

“I agree with that. Especially...that is why I wear a hijab and I do, like, feel kind of...if you’re walking with someone who’s not, you can see the way you’re treated differently, and I’ve felt that quite a lot.”

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I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and bringing this matter to the House for consideration. Does she agree that the United Kingdom is a multicultural society, and that that is something of which we should be immensely proud? However, does she also agree that multiculturalism shows a facet of what being British means, and that foundation should always give us pride, as it is about being part of the wonderful United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which allows for diversity, faith and belief on our shores?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, some of which I agree with and, as he will understand, some of which I do not. This idea of what it means to be British is very much under question. However, I do know what it means to be a human being and to stand up for human rights and for what is right. I do not think that that is defined by where someone comes from in the world, which is why I say again that, wherever there are things going on in this world, we must not be afraid to stand up to them.

Today is an opportunity to combat the prejudice that exists. Hate crime remains a serious issue. Civic groups in England and Wales have been monitoring the rise in hate crime. The Muslim Council of Britain’s group of mosques said that it had compiled a dossier of 100 hate crimes over the weekend of the EU referendum. Dr Shafi, the secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain said:

“As the results of the referendum became known, I called for our politicians to come together and heal the divisions that have emerged as a result of the campaign. Now we are witnessing the shocking extent of this with reports around the country of hate speech and minorities being targeted. Our country is experiencing a political crisis which, I fear threatens the social peace.”

I do believe that we are making progress in this area. One extremely positive move has been the recent adoption of the hijab as part of the police uniform in Scotland. In 2006, Police Scotland announced that women from Muslim communities may now wear the hijab as part of their uniform. Speaking on behalf of Police Scotland, a spokesperson said:

“I hope that this addition to our uniform options will contribute to making our staff mix more…and add to the life skills, experiences and personal qualities that our officers and staff bring to policing the communities of Scotland.”

That is something that I absolutely support.

However, challenges remain when it comes to combating prejudice. It would be remiss of me not to mention the well-documented situation that arose between the journalist, Fatima Manji, and Kelvin MacKenzie. Channel 4 news presenter, Fatima Manji, was criticised in July 2016 by former editor of The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, for wearing a hijab while reporting on the Nice truck attack. MacKenzie said in his column in The Sun:

“I could hardly believe my eyes…Was it appropriate for her to be on camera when there had been yet another shocking slaughter by a Muslim? Was it done to stick one in the eye of the ordinary viewer who looks at the hijab as a sign of the slavery of Muslim women by a male-dominated and clearly violent religion?”

It was reported that 1,400 complaints were sent to the Independent Press Standards Organisation about that column. Fatima Manji responded to MacKenzie in an article, saying:

“He has attempted to smear half of them further by suggesting they are helpless slaves. And he has attempted to smear me by suggesting I would sympathise with a terrorist.”

A YouGov poll following the events found that 44% thought that MacKenzie’s remarks were wrong and should not have been printed. The right of women to wear a hijab if they so wish is a right, like any other, for women to wear what they want when they want.

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Does the hon. Lady agree that, although it is right for us to mark World Hijab Day in this Chamber, we must acknowledge and recognise that some women are forced to wear the hijab? Ultimately, this is about women’s right to choose to wear what they want to, and for us to stand against the bigotry that we have seen lately in this country. For example, women have had their hijabs ripped off their heads. That is not acceptable.

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The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Yes, too many crimes are committed whereby women—even young women and girls—have their hijabs pulled off. I agree with her point that, as Muslim women, we stand by those whose choice it is not to wear the hijab and whose choice it is not to do what they may be told by male counterparts in their family. Islam is about equality. Anyone who suggests otherwise does not know or understand that religion. We will continue to stand up against those who try to paint our religion in a negative light. We ask people not to expect us to apologise for everything that is done wrong in society by a Muslim. We are not responsible for all of them. We are each, as individuals, responsible for our own actions and for speaking up when we think that wrong is taking place.

It is the right of women to wear what they want where they want, including in this Chamber and beyond, without any fear of what people might suggest the repercussions may be. That brings me to another case in point. In 2016, Nicola Thorp, who was working as receptionist at City firm PwC, was sent home without pay for refusing to wear high heels. She was required to wear a heel of two to four inches. She went on to launch a petition asking to make it illegal for a company to require female employees to wear high heels at work. The petition garnered 152,420 signatures and will be debated in Westminster Hall on 6 March. I cannot wait. The Government’s initial response to the petition stated:

“Company dress codes must be reasonable and must make equivalent requirements for men and women. This is the law and employers must abide by it.”

The Petitions Committee and the Women and Equalities Committee published the “High heels and workplace dress codes” report on 26 January, recommending that the Government take urgent action to improve the effectiveness of the Equality Act 2010. It recommends that

“the Government…review this area of the law”,

and, if necessary,

“ask Parliament to amend it”.

It calls for “more effective remedies” such as increased financial penalties

“for employment tribunals to award against employers who breach the law”

in order to provide an effective deterrent.

I agree with the Committees’ inquiry findings, as the report also states:

“We heard from hundreds of women who told us about the pain and long-term damage caused by wearing high heels for long periods in the workplace”—

perhaps I should not be the one giving this speech, because I am currently wearing heels, by choice of course—

“as well as from women who had been required to dye their hair blonde, to wear revealing outfits and to constantly reapply make-up. The Government has said that the existing law is clear, and that the dress code that prompted this petition is already unlawful. Nevertheless, discriminatory dress codes remain widespread. It is therefore clear that the existing law is not yet fully effective in protecting employees from discrimination at work.”

There is much to do.

I reiterate that women—I know that everyone in the Chamber will agree with me; I dare them to say otherwise—should have the right to wear what they want without fear of discrimination. No one, but no one, has the right to discriminate against someone on the basis of their religious beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be or if they hold none at all. We are living in a world where women are feeling more threatened and more vulnerable. Telling women what they can and cannot wear, or how they should and should not look, is detrimental not only to women but to society as a whole. We need to work together to create a safer society where everyone can feel free to express religious beliefs without fear of discrimination, and everyone can feel comfortable to wear what they want, whenever they want.

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I thank the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) for introducing this important debate and for regaling us with her own fashion choices in terms of footwear. I cannot match the high-heel wearing—not in the Chamber, anyway—but I can certainly match her support for people wearing what they wish to wear through their own free choice. I entirely agree with her on that. The Government fully support people’s right to celebrate their faith and are firmly opposed to policies that seek to stigmatise or create division on the basis of faith, race or nationality.

As the hon. Lady and other Members said, we have a strong tradition throughout these islands—throughout the United Kingdom—of tolerance and freedom of expression. We are proud that we are a diverse nation. This House has further to go on that, but even in my short time here, I think we have been getting better. We want to build a nation where people are free to express their religious identity, including through the wearing of the hijab, the kippah, or whatever else fits with their religious beliefs. As I said in the debate on Holocaust Memorial Day a couple of weeks ago, I was shocked, when I was vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-Semitism, to go Brussels to meet young Jewish students who were afraid of going out in the streets there with their kippah on. The hon. Lady referred to instances in this country of women wearing the hijab who have similarly been subject to abuse. That is completely and utterly unacceptable, and we would all condemn it on both sides of the House.

We should, as the hon. Lady did, celebrate the many successful women in the country who do choose to wear the hijab by free choice—women like Fatima Manji, who became Britain’s first hijab- wearing TV newsreader in March 2016.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) on securing this debate. As a supporter of sensible shoes, I am particularly in favour of the comments about high heels. The Minister mentioned Fatima Manji. Will he add his voice to mine and those of other MPs who condemned Trevor Kavanagh, a board member of the so-called Independent Press Standards Organisation, who called Fatima Manji a fool for bringing the case against Kelvin MacKenzie and said that wearing a hijab was a provocative gesture? Does the Minister agree that that was a most unsuitable comment from somebody who is a board member of the so-called Independent Press Standards Organisation?

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I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her intervention. I was not aware of that case, but it is clearly completely unacceptable to suggest that because somebody is a member of the Muslim faith they are in some way responsible for a terrorist atrocity committed by people apparently in the name of that religion.

As I said, we should celebrate women who decide, through their own choice, to wear the hijab. I mentioned Fatima Manji. Nadiya Hussain, another woman who chooses to wear the hijab, was named as one of the BBC’s top 100 women in 2016 after her unforgettable triumph on “The Great British Bake Off”, which I am sure many of us watched with joy. Malala Yousafzai, the youngest holder of the Nobel peace prize at the age of 17, is a young woman who has stood up against all odds to promote the rights of education and freedom for all.

We are very clear as a Government about the profound contribution that people from all religious backgrounds make to our society. Whatever our faith, we share British values that we should all be proud of. We share those values regardless of our political beliefs, whether we are nationalists or Unionists; the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) alluded to that. Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights and the equal treatment of people and individuals define us as a society. We should be very proud of those values, which are supported by the overwhelming majority of people in the United Kingdom and sustained through our important local and national institutions.

We should also be proud of the fact that this country has, for a very long time, been home to many different cultures, religions and communities. As the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has said, it is of course right that we celebrate the positive contribution that diverse groups make to British, Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish life—I am trying to be inclusive.

We also need to recognise that more needs to be done, as the hon. Lady said throughout her speech, to make sure that nobody is excluded or left behind. On race relations and racial equality, the Government have been very clear that we want to create a fair society in which all people, whatever their ethnic origin, sexual orientation or social background, are valued and able to participate fully and realise their potential. We have work to do in that regard across the United Kingdom. Nobody should be held back because of where they are born, the religion they choose or their sexuality or gender.

The Prime Minister was very clear on the steps of Downing Street that we believe in a union not just between the nations of the UK, but between our citizens—each and every one of us. That is why the Government have set ourselves a mission of creating a country that works for everyone, which is something on which we can all agree.

We have launched a unit to look into racial disparities in our public services, and it stretches right across Government. As a former schoolteacher in some difficult areas, I am pleased that the Government will focus on the disparity between white working class boys and other boys in this country, because the divisions are not always where we expect them to be. The study will highlight the differences in outcomes for people of different backgrounds in every area—from health and education, to childcare, welfare, employment, skills and the criminal justice system. During Prime Minister’s questions today, the Prime Minister used some powerful words to describe the changes we have made to ensure fairness in the criminal justice system. That audit will be published this summer.

We also need to ensure that women are truly free to choose whether or not to wear the hijab, as the hon. Lady so eloquently said, and that all women are able and empowered to access their full rights as British citizens. The promotion and protection of women’s rights is enshrined in international human rights law, and it is vital to ensure that stable and prosperous societies enable women to participate fully in political, economic and social life.

Dame Louise Casey’s review, which was published just before Christmas, makes it clear that there is more to be done in this country to integrate isolated communities, precisely to ensure that people are not marginalised and are able to access the full range of opportunities available in this country. The Government are considering her recommendations as part of a new integration strategy, which our Department will lead on and which will be launched this spring so that we can continue to build a country that works for everyone.

The review highlighted the issue of English language provision, because 22% of Muslim women in Britain in 2011 spoke no English, compared with only 9% of Muslim men, less than 1% of Christian women and 0.4% of the female population overall. That is not acceptable in modern Britain, which is why in January 2016 the former Prime Minister announced a new English language offer worth £20 million over this Parliament to help at least 40,000 women in the most isolated communities get the training they need to enable and empower them to play a full part in our society.

The Casey review also highlighted issues faced by women in specific communities, including domestic abuse and other disgusting criminal practices such as female genital mutilation, forced marriage and so-called honour-based crimes. I am proud to serve as a White Ribbon ambassador, for a charity that is doing so much with a range of different communities across the country to encourage men to stand up to violence against women.

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The Minister is making an excellent point. Does he agree that it is extremely important to challenge rape myths based on beliefs about what women wear and, therefore, their intentions? We should always challenge and stand up against rape myths, because the conviction rates for such crimes in our courts are desperately low. We must do all we can to address juror bias.

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I could not agree more. There is absolutely no connection between what somebody chooses to wear and whether that awful, heinous crime is committed against them. We should be absolutely clear on that.

It is important to emphasise in debates such as this one that men are also the victims of domestic abuse, but there is no doubt that the majority of the victims of domestic abuse are women. It is particularly difficult in certain communities to access those victims, and charities such as the White Ribbon Campaign are really important to that.

Violence against women and girls is a very serious crime. Such crime has a massive impact, not just on the individuals concerned but on our economy, health services and criminal justice system. As I have made absolutely clear, we as a Government—indeed, we are in complete agreement on this across the House—will not stand for those crimes. Protecting women and girls from violence, and supporting victims and survivors of sexual violence, remains a priority for the Government. That is why last year we published our violence against women and girls strategy for this Parliament.

Women who choose to wear the hijab can often be targets of hate crime, and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire gave some examples of that in her speech. I agree with her, and I want to make it very clear from the Dispatch Box that that form of hatred is un-British and it will not be tolerated. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said recently:

“Hate crime has no place whatsoever in British society. We will not stand for it. All communities must be able to live their lives free from fear of verbal or physical attack.”

None of us could disagree with that. That is why we have adopted a zero-tolerance approach towards all forms of hate crime. Anti-Semitism has been a particular cancer in our political discourse of late, and more still needs to be done to address that. Islamophobia is also a concern in our political discourse, and neither of those is acceptable.

I am proud that we have some of the strongest legislation in the world to tackle hate crime. It includes specific offences for racially or religiously aggravated activity, and offences of stirring up hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation. We have put stronger sentences in place for those who are found guilty of perpetuating hate crime. Both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are absolutely clear that those who perpetrate any form of hate crime will be punished with the full force of the law. We should be proud of that.

We cannot be complacent. We need to do much more to understand the hate crime we are seeing and to tackle it at its root. That is why we worked on the cross-Government hate crime action plan, which we published last summer. It includes measures to increase reporting of hate incidents and crimes, improve support for victims and prevent hate crime, particularly through education and by targeting at-risk groups or locations, such as public transit, which has been a particular problem in that regard.

I am proud of my Department’s role in helping to create an environment that prevents hate crime from happening in the first place. We contribute to a number of projects, such as the Anne Frank Trust and Streetwise, which support young people and encourage them to challenge prejudice and hatred. That is particularly important given the fact that sadly, according to research, and as is the case with so many crimes, young people are both the main victims and—more shockingly, perhaps, given the tolerance that we expect from young people—the main perpetrators of hate crime.

We also support third-party reporting initiatives, such as Tell MAMA, which play a vital role in monitoring and recording incidents of anti-Muslim hostility, in supporting victims and in raising community awareness of the importance of reporting. There is a double-edged sword: hate crime figures have increased during the past few years, which is shocking to many of us, but that is also evidence of the success of many of these organisations in encouraging communities to come forward and report hate crime.

I recently met a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews. They are often very obvious targets, because of the physical dress they choose to wear. Previously, they did not report hate crimes. Quite a significant effort has gone into encouraging them to do so, and we are seeing more of them come forward, which is all to the good. We will not tolerate the few individuals in this country who target people because they happen to look a bit different or to dress a bit differently, and we encourage anyone who has experienced hate crime to report it to the police.

We are committed to creating a strong and integrated society in which hatred and prejudice are not tolerated, and all people are free to express their religious identity and live their lives without fear of hatred or discrimination. Despite the problems we have, we should actually be very proud of the fact that such is the experience of most people living in this country. We want a society that treats people with equality and respect, and our Government are committed to that.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She has raised awareness of women’s right to dress as they choose—not just the hijab, but high heels, as she said—and to celebrate their faith. Importantly, we are in agreement that, as she said herself, that right must be balanced within society by a woman’s right to choose for herself and not to feel under any particular pressure. If a woman chooses to wear the hijab, or anything else for that matter, it should be of her own free will and free choice.

I again congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate, and on securing such a good turnout of SNP Members and other hon. Members who have contributed to it. We should be proud of our values of tolerance and respect in this country. There is more to be done, and she can be assured that the Government are 100% committed to doing what is necessary.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.