KHAMIS MUSHAYT: When an eight- or ten-year-old girl is told that she should cover her entire body from head to toe — as an adult woman is supposed to do — then immediately the child’s mother asks why.
This is exactly what is happening in the southern province of Asir where school regulations stipulate that pre-pubescent girls should dress in such a way that no part of their body, including head and face, is visible.
A child who dares to violate the new dress code faces severe punishment, including a public scolding and deductions from her marks.
This has put parents in a real dilemma. On the one hand, this new dress code is being imposed; on the other, they find it difficult to convince their young daughters that it is necessary for them to be completely veiled.
In addition, the parents have not been able to convince school authorities that little girls are not required to dress as adult women. Though Islam has strict dress regulations for women, they are only applied after girls reach puberty.
Umm Abrar, whose daughter is in Grade 4 at a primary school, went out shopping for a small abaya that would meet the school specifications. The scarf in her school should be worn in such a way that neither her face nor her hair is visible, allowing only her eyes to be seen.
“Until last year, the head scarf for little girls did not mean covering heads and faces. Only girls who had reached puberty needed to cover their faces. But this year the school ordered all girls to cover both heads and faces,” Umm Abrar said. “Contrary to social customs and religious regulations, school authorities demand that little girls be completely covered. Girls submit to the regulations only under threat of punishment and therefore when they are outside school grounds they remove the covering,” she added.
Umm Abrar finally bought an abaya matching the specifications set out in the school regulations so that her daughter would be spared punishment in school.
Another girl in Grade 6 of a primary school said: “The school regulations make me use two kinds of abayas: One that covers me entirely is for school and the other that shows my face is for family and social occasions.”
Umm Abrar also feared that coercing girls to conceal their childhood behind black abayas and live like adults would be damaging to young minds. “Children are children and they should be treated so and not as adults,” she said.
The teachers, she added, preached what they did not practice; they demanded that the girls not wear brocaded abayas or abayas made with glitter or sequins when they themselves often wore exactly that.
The mothers in Asir also wonder why school authorities order girls to dress in ways that go far beyond the demands of Islam; on the other hand, schools in the Makkah province allow pre-pubescent girls to dress according to a more relaxed Islamic code. The school authorities in Asir, however, justified their stand by saying that the practice would help develop the culture of Islamic dress at a very early age in girls. A school principal, speaking on condition of anonymity, said young girls who wear full abaya and veil throughout the year are awarded prizes as encouragement to other girls.
The principal also admitted that most girls obeyed the order because they were afraid of punishment, which included the deduction of 10 marks from a total of 100 marks given for good conduct.
Another school official agreed that the practice was not an obligation from a religious perspective. Her view was that the new dress code was an effort to make girls get accustomed to the idea of wearing the complete veil in advance of the time it was actually required.
The school official added that this would prevent the more attractive girls from being harassed by men.
Khayriyah, principal of Al-Manara private school in Asir, said she has not exempted any girl from being completely veiled in the school though she knew that several parents did not approve.
According to a woman supervisor at the Education Department in Asir, the full veil is being imposed to curb girls from showing off hair cut above the ear or hair that has been highlighted with brilliant colors. She said the ministry’s guidelines do not in fact specify that the abaya should be black or that it should completely cover the head. The guidelines, however, state that it should not show the body of an adult woman.
Dr. Rajab Barsali, a leading psychologist in the western region, said that the constant conflict between the social dress system and school dress code would have a negative impact on the minds of young girls. “Modern research has confirmed that receiving contradictory messages at the same time will lead to personality imbalances in a growing child,” the doctor said. He added that such conflicts might also lead to mental disturbances, such as depression, a tendency to break away from social customs and norms, and harming oneself.
Abdul Mohsen Al-Obaikan, adviser at the Ministry of Justice, said a girl should cover her face and stop displaying her face at 10 because that is the age when her body begins to become attractive.
“There is no reason why girls should feel any conflict between school and home just because they put on the veil to go to school. On the other hand, they should start identifying with their mothers and older sisters. In other words, it is a preparation for their correct dressing in the future.”
Abdul Rahman Al-Asiri, a notary public in Khamis Mushayt, said that the Shariah makes it mandatory that women cover when they reach the age of puberty. But religious scholars view that the spirit of the same rule justifies compelling girls to adopt the veil at the age of 10. He said, however, that religion did not demand that women wear black abayas but that was related to local traditions.
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