This blog piece is an extended version of a presentation I delivered at a panel discussion, which was held at University College London on 27th November 2017, titled “Why is my hijab your problem?”.
Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon, a circular building with an observation tower that allowed for inmates to be watched by a single watchman was extended by Foucault in his writings about discipline and punishment, and the role of surveillance as a key tool that enables these to be carried out. It is my argument that the education system has become a modern day panopticon through which Muslims and the ‘Other’, are watched carefully, disciplined, and punished. Examples of this include as teachers, we are vilified and punished for raising safeguarding concerns, and plots such as the Trojan horse hoax are weaved. The recent hijab controversy where Ofsted will be questioning little girls as to why they wear the hijab is an example of the regulated bodies of children, and by extension, the parents and families of these children are also being disciplined and punished as to how they can and cannot dress their children. Furthermore, the government’s Prevent strategy divulges further than the regulation of Muslim and ‘Other’ bodies, by regulating their minds and thoughts. One of the striking things about Prevent is that teachers are taught how to be the ‘watchmen’ of this ‘modern day panopticon’.
In his later works, Foucault developed the theory of governmentality, which can be defined as the ways governments try to produce citizens to fulfil government policies. Research around citizenship sheds light on the reciprocal relationship between citizen and state, which is established at the onset of citizenship status. The citizen then becomes a tool for the state, through which surveillance is carried out, and justified using the ‘good citizen v. bad citizen” narrative. We see this playing out in messages on public transport that ask travellers to report suspicious behaviour. Similarly, teachers are utilised as tools for such surveillance within schools (a state institution). We know from the Stanford Prison experiment, which explored the effects of perceived power, that some of the participants who developed their roles as the officers enforced authoritarian measures and subjected some prisoners to psychological torture. The effect of the ‘perceived power’ that some citizens assume through ‘governmentality techniques’ over the “Other” (who are largely Muslim), are little explored.
Certainly in my own case in the employment tribunals, I submitted a subject access request for E-ACT to provide me with any personal data they held about me on their systems. This includes emails, text messages, cctv etc. The documents I obtained through the subject access request included emails in which staff at the school can be seen to say “we suspect this girl has done it before, she was head girl at a Trojan horse affair school” and “I am concerned about her working at schools again” to which someone responded “I have called the agency and they have removed her off the books”. I also uncovered a statement from the HR representative from their internal investigation that quoted the head teacher to have said to her “Suriyah has accused heartlands academy of being anti-Muslim and as a result she no longer wants me to work at the academy.”
In reading these emails one can gain an insight into the sense of power, superiority, authority and even enjoyment the teachers experience. The strongest evidence of this is the fact that these emails were supposed to be ‘private’, ‘hidden’ and ‘inaccessible’ to me (the subject), so they could say whatever they wanted without consequence. These teachers truly believed that it was for them to discipline and punish and for the recipients of discipline and punishment to be Muslim/Other. Moreover, in the private correspondences I obtained, I am often referred to as “this girl” and in doing so, I am stripped of my identity, my agency, and my voice. This is the ultimate punishment.
So what does the hijab have to do with this? Perhaps for the first time in history a piece of cloth has been so contentious. As ‘subjects’ we naturally feel the hijab is a problem for ‘mainstream society’. But it is my position that the hijab is in fact, no a problem but rather, it is a site of pleasure, as this is where the ‘watchmen’ of our ‘modern day panopticons’ can exercise their power. Certainly, in my own case, had I not been a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, raising a concern about an 18-rated 9/11 video being shown to 11 year old children, would not have resulted in me being dismissed. The hijab as a site of difference is where power is exercised, resulting in pleasure to those exercising power.
One may say that I am overly generalising and this simply cannot be the case for every Muslim. I accept that there are Muslims who have indeed had positive experiences in mainstream society. I certainly have friends who have positive experience as teachers in schools where they are the only hijab wearing Muslim teachers in their department and feel completely included in their school culture. They also attest to the delivery of Prevent highlighting various forms of extremism, and not only Islamic extremism. Outside of my experience with Heartlands Academy, I too have had incredibly positive experiences as a British Citizen. However, while such experiences should be celebrated and encouraged, it is difficult to overlook the growing hostility towards Muslims particularly through state policies. The fact that such hostile state policies speak to the work of Foucault is of significance in understanding the scale of Islamophobia today.