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U.K.: Court Backs Muslim Schoolgirl In Uniform Dispute

The British Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that administrators at an overwhelmingly Muslim high school violated a 16-year-old student's rights when it sent her home for wearing a long Muslim dress known as a "jilbab." In the latest of a number of cases across Europe testing the issue of religious clothing in schools, judges ruled that Shabina Begum was denied her right to manifest her religion. British law has no strictures against religious dress in the classroom, but the decision threatens to take away schools' abilities to set their own dress codes.

London, 3 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Shabina Begum was sent home after turning up for class one day in 2002 wearing a "jilbab" -- a long gown that covers the entire body aside from the hands and face. She'd already been a student for two years at the school, wearing the pants and tunic known as the "shalwar kamiz" -- which is allowed under the school's dress code.

School administrators disapproved, however, and Begum subsequently transferred to another school. Standing on the steps outside the London courtroom yesterday, she suggested the latest decision is good news for all Muslim women.
"Can a schoolgirl -- who believes that it is her requirement of a faith to wear jilbab -- can she do that? And today's judgment is clear. Yes, she can."

"I welcome today's court decision and take this opportunity to extend my thanks to my legal team. Today's decision is a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry."

Begum stressed her disappointment with the earlier ruling, calling it "amazing that in the so-called free world, I have to fight to wear this attire." She cited bigotry within the media, and among politicians and legal officials, since the 2001 attacks on the United States that were carried out by Muslim extremists. She suggested that such attitudes lay behind the decision to ban her conservative Muslim attire.

Some Muslim organizations were quick to express satisfaction with the latest court decision. Inayat Bunglawala is a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain: "We very much welcome this landmark decision. It gives a strong signal about freedom to dress and also about respecting the way others articulate their belief. Shabina Begum, in wearing the jilbab, was not infringing on anybody else's rights, and today's very clear judgment from the Court of Appeal reflects that common-sense approach."

Bunglawala also stressed the human-rights aspect of the case, which Bungalawala said stems from Britain's adoption, five years ago, of the European Union's Human Rights Act.

"This is surely a human rights issue," Bungalawala said. "Can a schoolgirl -- who believes that it is her requirement of a faith to wear jilbab -- can she do that? And today's judgment is clear. Yes, she can. So, no school should be disallowing pupils from wearing the jilbab, disallowing them to get their education purely on the basis of the dress they wear."

Begum's former school, 50 kilometers north of London and with an enrollment that is more than 70 percent Muslim, responded with a terse written statement. It said the school took into account what it described as "the cultural and religious sensitivities of pupils." It also said the case was lost due to "a small technical breach of the Human Rights Act."

Some observers have suggested that the verdict looks like an attempt by the court to straddle the fence. Martin Ward is deputy general secretary of a group that represents school principals, the Secondary Heads Association.

"The ruling does seem to be slightly contradictory," Ward says. "It says that she was treated unlawfully and prevented from expressing her religious beliefs in a way that was in accordance with her human rights. But elsewhere in the ruling it implies that the school's uniform policy was in fact a good one. So, it seems that the policy is fine, but the pupils do not necessarily have to follow it."

Ward described Begum's former school as having acted "extremely reasonably about their uniform policy," adding that school officials took every opportunity to consult with pupils, students' parents, and Muslim authorities. He noted that the school allowed girls to wear the hijab -- the Muslim head scarf that was banned recently in France -- and the "shalwar kamiz" that Begum happily wore before turning up one day in the "jilbab."

Dr. Ali Noorizade is a director at the Arab-Iranian Studies Centre in London. He said he thought the more conservative "jilbab" would adversely affect educators' efforts.

"A girl who attends school with jilbab, it will prevent her [from integrating] with the other students of this school, to the activities of this school. I think the teachers concern is a genuine one, and it's not a question if they are against Islam or any sort of tradition."

Schools in Britain are generally afforded broad discretion in setting out dress codes. Some suggest that such official laxity might be coming to an end, and say they would welcome the government's intervention to issue clearer parameters.

Ward continues: "I think we will be seeking further guidance from the government as to what exactly the legal position now is. Whether there will be further appeals about this, I don't know. But if not, it means that we will then have a rather contradictory judgment to work on. So there may be further cases."

In light of public arguments on both sides of the dispute -- and similar furors in EU neighbors like France -- governments and courts are likely to see many more challenges over religious attire in schools.