As another French Muslim schoolgirl is sent home by teachers for wearing a long skirt, Shelina Janmohamed, explains why it's time to tighten the bonds of sisterhood.
In 2009 the journalist Lubna al-Hussein was arrested in Sudan for wearing trousers. Under the country's penal code she was guilty of wearing 'obscene outfits' in public and fined $200.
Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein
For women here the story was reported as something at best ridiculous, at worst outrageous - something that we didn't need to worry too much about because they it was happening in a faraway place to women of far away cultures.
But these sorts of draconian measures are getting closer to home and it's time for all women to worry. When what we wear can bar us from the ordinary activities like going to school, the office or just simply outdoors, we need to sit up and tighten the bonds of the sisterhood.
I'm talking about France of course, where last month a girl was sent home twice from school for wearing a long black skirt, which she bought from French high street shop Kiabi for €13. She was punished because the school deemed the non-descript skirt to be a 'conspicuous' sign of religion.
France's strict secular laws ban the display of any 'ostentatious sign of religion' from official public spaces like schools. This includes items like a headscarf, a skullcap or a large cross. But this 15-year-old was not wearing a headscarf when she entered the school, her misdemeanour was the black maxi skirt.
Nor is this an isolated incident. In total around 130 schoolgirls were sent home last year for wearing long skirts across France.
To me it's clear that her punishment is because she is Muslim and reeks of discrimination: it's about who she is - not what she did. Any other pupil could have worn the same skirt. Someone else decided that they didn't like her wearing a long skirt and told her to go home.
Earlier this week Twitter creaked under the strain of the hashtag#JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux (‘I'll wear my skirt how I like’) as people around the world took to social media to react to this outrageous situation. After all, how does a skirt have a religion? And to those arguing that she should have changed and come back – what should she have changed into? What could be more innocuous than a long black skirt? And was the underlying message that more flesh needs to be on display?
There's a separate discussion to be had about the rights and wrongs of the French ban on veiling. But you don't need to support or even like the niqab or hijab to see this should be a red flag for all women. The ban and now skirt-gate sets a worrying precedent that we women can once again be stopped from our ordinary day to day activities, prohibited from our rights such as an education, because someone else decided they don't like the way we look.
The image of a temping job advert on LinkedIn a few months ago
If you think that the increasing pressure placed on how Muslim women appear in public is their own fault, and nothing to do with the pressures our society places on women generally to conform to a particular look or be excluded, think again. It wasn't long ago that women were prevented from wearing trousers in offices. Even today the unspoken code that women should wear short skirts in male environments still persists (see image above).
Women are constantly fighting the pressure to conform to a particular body image. One of the biggest challenges is to avoid the early sexualisation of our young women and to give girls the confidence to project their own image. Yet here we have a girl doing exactly all of that and she is told that because she is wearing a long skirt she doesn't conform to our idea of what a schoolgirl ought to look like. Because of course all schoolgirls should look like sexy Britney Spears. I jest of course.
Women are also repeatedly forced to conform to other homogenous ideals to be accepted. In America, several schools have banned black children from wearing their afro hair natural.
In 2006, the Baltimore Police department banned cornrows, dreadlocks and twists deeming them to be “extreme” and a “fad” – this is despite them being the most practical style to certain hair types. The US army only recently revoked the same ludricrous ban, after much protesting from campaigners.
All of these denials of women's difference, self-expression and womanhood need to be stitched together and seen as part of the same onslaught on the ways women are allowed to present themselves in order to be accepted in the public domain.
Don't be distracted by the argument that this is to save Muslim women. Women's rights have too long been sacrificed at the altar of 'saving' other women. History shows us that this way danger lies and we must be vigilant.
At the end of the 19th century, the British consul general in Egypt Lord Cromer claimed we should be running that country to save Egyptian women from the “fatal obstacle” of Islam. The Egyptians should be "persuaded or forced" to become "civilised" by disposing of the veil. You might think he was the embodiment of the women's rights movement but when he returned to the UK he set up the Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage, which tried, by any means possible, to stop women getting the vote.
Six year ago Lubna al-Hussein said that the prosecution for wearing trousers was 'insulting'. It was insulting in Sudan and now it's insulting in France. As a Muslim woman I'm not going to stand for being punished for wanting an education, or working in an office or just going about my business in an outfit I should be free to wear. I'll damn well wear my skirt exactly as I please and stand shoulder to shoulder with my French sisters at the top of a very slippery slope. I hope you’ll join me.