Schoolgirl banned from wearing Muslim dress wins appeal

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A Muslim schoolgirl has won her battle to wear traditional "head-to-toe" dress in the classroom. The Court of Appeal has decided that her school acted unlawfully in barring her.

A Muslim schoolgirl has won her battle to wear traditional "head-to-toe" dress in the classroom. The Court of Appeal has decided that her school acted unlawfully in barring her.

Shabina Begum, 16, won her case against Denbigh High School in Luton after Lord Justice Brooke ruled yesterday that the school denied her right to manifest her religious beliefs.

Muslim leaders welcomed the ruling as a "landmark decision" that should lead to more tolerance of religious beliefs.

But community leaders in Luton warned that it could create problems for schools and insisted that the vast majority of Muslims would not want their daughters to wear a jilbab - a full-length gown which exposes only the face and hands.

The case could have important implications for multifaith schools across the country which could be forced to re-assess the way they enforce their uniform policies.

Schools in Britain set their own uniform regulations. But Lord Justice Brooke called on the Government to give schools more guidance on how to comply with the Human Rights Act.

Shabina described the ruling as a victory for all Muslims who wished to "preserve their identity and values" in the face of "prejudice and bigotry". The school insisted that it had only lost on a technical breach of the Human Rights Act.

Shabina had worn a shalwar kameez (trousers and tunic) in accordance with the school's uniform policy until September 2002 when she informed teachers that she would in future only wear a jilbab.

The school, where nearly 80 per cent of pupils are Muslim, would not allow her to attend lessons until she wore approved clothing. It argued that its uniform policy had been agreed as acceptable with Islamic scholarsand if she could no longer abide by it she should change schools.

Shabina took the school to court but her case was rejected by High Court judges last summer. The school had argued that allowing her to wear a jilbab would impact on the rights of other Muslim girl pupils who opposed allowing the jilbab as they felt that it would create a hierarchy of belief at the school.

The Court of Appeal agreed that the school had a right to set a school uniform policy but said it had failed to consider Shabina's rights under the Human Rights Act.

After the judgment, Shabina, who attends a school where the jilbab is allowed, condemned her treatment by Denbigh School. "[Their] decision to prevent my adherence to my religion ... was a consequence of an atmosphere created in Western societies post 9/11, in which Islam has been made a target for vilification in the name of the 'war on terror'," she said.

Iqbal Sacranie, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, argued that schools should accommodate a wide spectrum of beliefs. "Those that choose to wear the jilbab and consider it to be part of the faith requirement for modest attire should be respected," he said.

But Yasin Rehman of the Luton Council of Mosques, which supported the school during the first court challenge, said: "There is no prescribed Islamic dress code. People of Islam, like other religions, say that you should dress modestly. How do you define that? This will create a lot of complications."

In a statement, Denbigh High School said it was proud of its multiracial policy. "The case was lost due to a small technical breach of the Human Rights Act. The judges accepted that the school is entitled to have a uniform policy and could see nothing wrong with it."

Luton Borough Council saidschools would be advised to take pupils' religion into account when imposing uniform rules.