The hijab or the bikini: the shaping of young girls’ sexuality

Where the line will be drawn between childrens' rights and parents’ rights will always be heavily contested. Issues from the veiling of young girls to the manufacture of padded bras for seven year olds, may best be dealt with by upholding the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The recent revival of feminist activity has focused predominantly, if not exclusively, on the pornification of our culture and the ways in which the representation of women as sex-objects has become ubiquitous and normalised. Worryingly, this trend has scooped up girls as young as four with high street stores selling bikinis aimed at them, padded bras for seven year olds, and shoes with three inch heels for eight year olds.  Fears of commercialisation  and the premature sexualisation of children have made the British government wade in to the debate along with web based campaign groups such as Mumsnet. Government commissioned reports starting with Australia in 2008, Britain, Quebec and Belgium in 2011, and the latest one in France published in March 2012 show that the phenomenon is widespread. Whilst the British report called mostly for self-regulation on the part of businesses and advertisers and recommended only one ban on the employment of children under 16 as brand ambassadors  and in peer to peer marketing, the French reportAgainst hyper-sexualisation, a new fight for equality, went further calling for bans on beauty pageants and lingerie for young children.

The French report was a response to a Vogue magazine issue which featured a heavily made up 10 year old girl, Thylane Blondeau, posing suggestively on the cover and elsewhere.  Her mother said in defence of the photos that "The only thing that shocks me about the photo is that the necklace she is wearing is worth three million euros … my daughter isn't naked, let's not blow things out of proportion." That space between parents and children is generally considered inviolate, off limits for the state unless the law is being broken. The balance between the competing rights of parents and children is a vexed one. Child protection is a grey area shot through with contradictions as evidenced by the retreat of the state from the anti-smacking campaign in recognition of parental rights.

However it is an area that is eminently vulnerable to peer pressure. The vast majority of women surveyed by the French parenting website Magicmaman found the Vogue pictures demeaning.  The furore forced the mother to defend her decision publicly: she may trot out that old chestnut of choice so beloved of liberal democracies but the rider to freedom of choice ‘so long as it doesn’t harm others’ is very much open to debate in this context. The impact of her choice highlights the idea of the sexual availability of young girls, thereby turning them into legitimate objects of male desire which could be dangerous for all girls.  Furthermore, it can have a negative effect on the body image and self-esteem of the girls who consume these pictures, not to mention the psychological harm to Blondeau herself. Interestingly, if the child had been employed to do manual work at age 10, it would have been illegal. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children must be protected from performing any work that may be ‘harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development’.  There would have been outrage if this clause had been invoked by the French government to prevent Blondeau taking part in that photo shoot.

By calling for a ban on lingerie and beauty pageants for young girls, the French report shifts responsibility from parents to the corporate sector which, to some extent, disguises the fact that the state is challenging parental hegemony. Additionally, it shifts the public debate and opens up a space to call for the banning of hijabs worn by young girls which also draws attention to girls' sexuality, conversely by covering them up. Both sets of girls are robbed of the freedom and innocence (i.e. not being constructed as objects of desire) of childhood. Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson for Council for Ex-Muslims is forthright in her condemnation of the imposition of hijabs on young girls, ‘child veiling must be banned full stop. This is a children’s rights issue. While adults may 'choose' veiling or a religion, children by their very nature cannot make such choices; what they do is really what their parents tell them to do…. They [parents] can't deny their children medical assistance or beat and neglect them or marry them off at 9 because it's part of their beliefs or religion.’  This is an important perspective in the debate on veiling which is often missing in the West out of ‘respect’ for other cultures and religions. However, Namazie also calls for the banning of the burka for adult women which, as I have argued elsewhere, will be counterproductive and seen as an onslaught on Muslims especially at a time of heightened anti-Muslim racism.

If this debate is framed purely in terms of children’s rights, it is fairly easy to avoid the tensions that arise from what can be seen as state interference in an area where parental authority has reigned supreme. International law, government policy and practice are increasingly predicated on children’s rights. However religious belief and identity are privileged in many areas of social policy which makes it particularly challenging to tackle a rights issue when it comes into conflict with religion. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 14, guarantees the child’s right to freedom of religion. Parents have a duty to provide guidance and direction in the exercise of these rights having regard to the evolving capacities, and best interests of the child and the State has a duty to respect that. There is a fudge going on here between the rights of parents and children. What does it mean in practice? Can younger children, say under the age of 10, have the capacity to reject the direction of their parents?

Dr Anat Scolnicov, a law academic, demonstrates that ‘parents have a presumptive right to determine their offspring’s religious identity’ by analysing legal approaches to adoption, an extreme case scenario when the child loses its connection with the birth family, and yet attempts are made to retain its original religious identity. In Britain, social workers are obliged to take into account ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious factors. Scolnicov argues that ‘Protection of religious identity is rarely protection of the exercise of individual choice.’  It is about protection of group rights over individual rights. In some rare cases such as the children of the Australian aboriginal community or Native Americans, who have been decimated by genocide, the community might cease to exist if their children were consistently adopted by outsiders. But these are ethnic and cultural questions rather than religious ones. However, the argument that the community will be decimated is used by some Muslims in support of their right to veil their children. A Muslim mother fears that, “Our enemies understand only too well that our children represent the future of Islam in the West, a future they wish to extinguish. So it's not surprising, that in this war on Islam our enemies attack our children and their right to Islam”. 

The very recognition that children have rights is a fairly recent one, and, by definition, unsettles family power structures. Where the line will be drawn between children’s rights and parents’ rights will always be heavily contested and redrawn to reflect the dominant concerns of the time.