Girls Pressured to Wear Hijab at Norwegian School

Just before Easter, Human Rights Service (HRS), the Oslo-based foundation for which I serve as information director, got a tip about what was described as an intense pressure to wear hijab at Vahl Grade School in downtown Oslo. Sources connected to the school told HRS that a female employee of Pakistani origin was openly trying to push hijabs on girls as young as first graders. She flattered the girls who didn't wear hijab by telling them how pretty they would be if they only put on hijabs, and said that she could give them hijabs as gifts. The woman works for SFO (Skolefritidsordning or "School Free Time Arrangement"), which provides volunteers to take care of kids before and after school hours, and also works as a classroom assistant. In March she got the head of SFO to write the following note to the parents of two non-Muslim girls: "Can X get a hijab from SFO on Tuesday, March 31, 2009?" The letter is dated March 30 and signed by the head of Norwegian SFO. HRS has the original letter. We also have a photograph of posters from the school building announcing prayer times for the children.

An employee at Vahl School explains the spread of hijabs at the school to HRS in this way:

"In first grade, about half of the Muslim girls show up in hijab. By the time they're in third grade, pretty much all of the Muslim girls are in hijab," says this person who wishes to remain anonymous.

At Vahl School only five percent of the pupils are ethnic Norwegians. And as we know, children want to be like other children. When the Pakistani woman tried to press hijabs on two non-Muslim girls by telling them how "pretty" they would be in hijab, it was likely not difficult to "convince" the children: they surely wanted both to be pretty and to not stick out.

The assistant principal at the school, Grete Wahlmann, obviously doesn't understand what kind of force and pressure on children these matters can involve or, for that matter, what values hijab represents. She told the website: "This was just a small gesture from SFO. There were two little girls who wanted to dress up in pretty, colorful, and glittering hijabs, and therefore SFO asked if it was okay with the parents for them to give them to the girls."