Girl loses legal bid to wear full Islamic dress in school

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The Independent Online

A Muslim girl has lost her three-year legal battle to wear full Islamic dress in class after the House of Lords upheld the headteacher's right to exclude pupils who refuse to comply with school uniform policy on religious grounds.

The law lords' ruling overturns an earlier decision that Shabina Begum's human rights had been violated when her school banned her from wearing a head-to-toe jilbab.

Ms Begum, 17, had argued that her religious convictions meant she must be allowed to wear full Islamic dress. Her counsel, Cherie Booth QC, told the court that the school uniform was no longer suitable for her because she had reached sexual maturity and it did not sufficiently protect her modesty.

But yesterday Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, said that the uniform had been adapted to meet the interests of Muslim culture and had been accepted by the majority of the local Islamic community.

Lord Bingham said that the school, Denbigh High School in Luton, Bedfordshire, was fully justified in its policy and so reversed the ruling by the Court of Appeal. "It had taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs but did so in an inclusive, unthreatening and uncompetitive way," he said. He added: "It would, in my opinion, be irresponsible for any court, lacking the experience, background and detailed knowledge of the headteacher, staff and governors, to overrule their judgement on a matter as sensitive as this."

Ms Begum said after the judgment was handed down: "Obviously I am saddened and disappointed about this, but I am quite glad it is all over and I can move on now. I had to make a stand against this and I am just happy it is all over now. Even though I lost, I have made a stand. Many women will not speak up about what they want."

She had worn the shalwar kameez (trousers and tunic) and headscarf from the time she started at the school at the age of 12 until September 2002, when she announced that the rules of her religion required her in future to wear the head-to-toe jilbab .

Ms Begum was sent home to change. She did not return to the school and later enrolled at another school where the jilbab was permitted. She is now considering taking her appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "This is a good judgment for schools. It shows that where a school is sensitive to local issues and has a good consultative process, its judgment will be upheld in law."

Begum's court battle

* September, 2002: Shabina Begum is sent home after she arrives at Denbigh High School, Luton, in the jilbab

* 13 February 2004: Papers are lodged at the Royal Courts of Justice in London asking for a judicial review of the decision to exclude her from school

* 23 February 2004: A judge finds that she does have an arguable case to seek judicial review

* 3 March 2004: Governors at Icknield High School in Luton decide to rescind their ban on Islamic headscarves

* 27 May 2004: A full hearing at the High Court is told the ban denies Ms Begum's right to practise her religious beliefs

* 15 June 2004: The High Court rules against Ms Begum and dismisses her application for a judicial review

* 20 December 2004: The legal row heads back to the Court of Appeal

* 2 March 2005: The Court of Appeal reverses the High Court ruling

* 25 August 2005: Ms Begum achieves five GCSE passes at another school, completing three years of study in one year

* 3 September 2005: A conference is held in London to mark International Hijab Solidarity Day

* 6 February 2006: Ms Begum's former school takes the case to the House of Lords

* 22 March 2006: Law lords overturn Appeal Court ruling