Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.K.: British Girl Loses Bid To Wear Islamic Dress To School

Prague, 15 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A Muslim schoolgirl in the United Kingdom has lost her legal battle to wear full Islamic dress in class.

Fifteen-year-old Shabina Begum has not attended school since she was sent home from her north London high school in 2002 for wearing the jilbab, a full-length gown covering all of her body except her hands and face.

The school argues that the jilbab is not permitted under the school's dress code -- and that it poses a health and safety risk.

Begum took the case to court, arguing that she was being denied her right to education and religious expression.

But today, the High Court in London dismissed her case.

Judge Hugh Bennett said Begum always had the option of attending classes in clothes allowed under her school's dress code. That dress code allows girls to wear a shalwar kameez, consisting of trousers and a tunic, and a head scarf.

Today's ruling sparked anger among some Muslim groups.

Inayat Bunglawala is the spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain: "Today's decision in the High Court was a very worrying and objectionable decision. The British Muslim community -- 1.6 million of them -- are a very diverse community, in terms of the interpretation and understanding of their faith, and also its practice. And within that broad spectrum, there are those who choose to wear the jilbab and consider it to be part of their faith's requirement for modest dress, and we believe that that should be respected."

The school -- where nearly nine out of 10 pupils are Muslim -- denies acting in a discriminatory manner. It says its uniform policy is flexible and takes into account all faiths and cultures.

It argues that allowing the jilbab might cause divisions among pupils, with those who wear traditional dress being seen as "better Muslims" than others.

Judge Bennett also called the school's dress code -- approved by the local council of mosques -- "balanced and proportionate."

But Bunglawala says the school could have been more inclusive.

"They certainly allowed the shalwar kameez and the hijab, which is fine, and many Muslim schoolgirls will fall within that band and agree to wear that dress. But there are some that will also want to wear the jilbab, and the school's definition didn't fit into that," Bunglawala says. "The fact is that other schools in Luton [north London] see no problem with wearing the jilbab."

Muslim groups are already unhappy with Britain's education system, which they recently branded Islamophobic. They called for Britain's 300,000 Muslim children to be offered exclusive Muslim schools and more single-sex teaching.

Begum's case has prompted comparisons with France, where Muslim head scarves and other religious symbols considered ostentatious will be banned from public schools as of September.

But Bunglawala says he does not see any parallels with the French ban.

"Here, the government has taken a far more realistic and flexible position and has reassured the Muslim community that the hijab will be protected and Muslim schoolgirls will not be deprived of their right to wear the head scarf in schools. I think just this particular school has taken exception to the wearing of the jilbab," Bunglawala says.

Begum's lawyer says she is considering whether to appeal.