The British prime minister’s wife is appearing in court as counsel for two girls who are suing their local education authority for having allegedly denied them an education, because it prevented them from going to school in their full Muslim regalia. It is, of course, the right of everyone under our legal system to try to obtain redress in the courts. But Mrs. Blair is not just another lawyer, because of who her husband is. Nor can she possibly be unaware of the social meaning and implication of the kind of clothes the two girls were trying to wear at school, at an age when they were not qualified to make the choice.
She must (or at least ought) also to know that there is a genuine problem about the availability of education for Muslim girls in Britain. Parents often keep their girls away from school after the age of 12, or send them to Pakistan for a few years so that they may not be educated, and they may wind up married against their will. The school inspectors, whose job is to ensure that children attend school, never intervene.
It is difficult to establish the scale of the problem, of course, but since, from the vantage point of one ward in one hospital, I became acquainted with scores and even hundreds of cases, it is possible that it is quite large. It is a subject on which Mrs. Blair, no doubt aware of her husband’s electoral situation, has remained silent.
There was a strange paradox about the young Muslim women I saw in the hospital, usually after they had tried to kill themselves. Their manners and deportment were infinitely better than those of young white women of the same economic class, and they were better educated than their white peers, although they had received at least four, and sometimes as many as seven, years fewer education.
In fact, they often were often estimable young women. They wanted desperately to learn, to accomplish something, to enter a profession, and to earn a living. If I had been an employer, they were just the kind of people I would hope to find. But their truncated education clearly had the purpose—usually achieved—of thwarting any ambition they might have. The young women found themselves in an utterly wretched position: hence the suicide attempts.
Yet the Muslim families clearly were doing something right, or at least much better than the white, non-Muslim families around them (if you could call the loose patterns of association found among the whites “families”).
Here, then, is proper material for reflection, of the kind that the opportunistic Blair couple will never give it. Discipline without freedom leads to misery, but freedom without discipline leads to chaos, shallowness, and misery of another kind.