LONDON, March 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- When 14-year-old Shabina Begum turned up at school in September 2002 wearing the jilbab, a long gown worn by women in a number of Muslim countries, she was sent home.
In the intervening three and a half years, Begum has pursued through Britain's courts what she believes is her right to religious expression. At times, Begum seemed to be winning.
However, on March 22, Britain's highest court, the Law Lords, overturned an earlier appeal-court verdict and ruled in favor of the school.
British teachers are satisfied with the ruling. "I think if the ruling had gone the other way, then it would have been a precedent, which would have created many difficulties for schools that wanted to have a school uniform," says John Dunford, the head of the professional body of headteachers, the Secondary Heads' Association. "As it is, I think, what's happened is that it's really preserved the status quo -- that if a pupil is not wearing the proper school uniform, then it is perfectly right for the school to take disciplinary action."
Understandably, Begum, who has lost years of schooling because of the case, was unhappy with the verdict.
"I do understand that I can go to another school, but I was at that school at that moment," she said. "I don't see why I have to move out of that school and leave all my friends or whatever just because I wanted to adhere to my religion."
Accommodating But Inflexible?
Begum's comment highlights a point that goes to the heart of the case: policy on uniforms varies from school to school. Typically, uniforms are usually agreed upon by school governors and parents' representatives. Often, decisions reflect the concerns of the local Muslim community. However, once a uniform is decided on, Britain's schools have a right to demand that their pupils wear the uniforms regardless of the religious views of the pupils or their parents.
The efforts made by Shabina's school to accommodate the wishes of the Muslim community was stressed by one of the judges, Lord Bingham. The school, he said, had " taken immense pains" to respect Muslim beliefs when it was deciding on a suitable uniform.
Some 80 percent of pupils at Shabina's school, Denbigh High, are Muslims.
Denbigh High allows its female pupils to wear a headscarf known as the hijab and a tunic with trousers, known as the shalwar kameez.
Tahir Alam is the education spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. He agrees that the school, which lies 50 kilometers north of London, in Luton, had been quite accommodating.
"This particular school that we're talking about, its school uniform policy is quite inclusive, and it does meet the requirements, if you like -- the Muslim community's perspective in general. So, there isn't a general issue to do with that," Alam says.
Alam also stresses that there was only some 15 or 20 centimeters' difference in length between the uniform and Shabina's jilbab. He argues that she should never have gone to court, losing two years of education in the process.
However, he concludes that both sides should have been flexible about something that he describes as "not a big issue."
Other Muslim scholars are more critical of Shabina. They point out that Islam does not require women to wear the dress that Shabina insisted on wearing. Wearing the jilbab is, rather, a cultural custom in only a few countries.
"The majority of Muslims...don't have any sort of attachment to the jalabyia [jilbab]," says Alireza Noorizade, the head of the Arab-Iranian Studies Center in London. "It's not for them a traditional outfit or dress, and they don't consider it as something that they have to have. It's not part of [their] religion; it's rather a traditional dress worn in some Arab countries and some Muslim countries."
Noorizade agrees with some observers that Shabina was prompted to go to court by her older, militant brother and that she may have been supported by some Islamist organizations.
John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association stresses that Britain is more accommodating of Muslim sentiment than, for example, France, which bans the wearing of religious symbols and dress in state schools.
"I think there is clearly a completely different attitude to both the school uniform in France, and also to religion in school," he says.
Britain's approach works well, he argues, because in Britain it is up to individual schools and not the state to set the rules. And those parents that want a more religious schooling can send their children to the relatively large number of religious schools in the country, most of which are state-funded.