Law Lords back school over Islamic dress

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The Independent Online

The Law Lords today overturned a court ruling that teenager Shabina Begum's human rights were violated when she was banned from wearing full-length Islamic dress at school.

In a ruling which many teachers will see as reaffirming the authority of schools, the House of Lords allowed an appeal by Denbigh High School in Luton, Bedfordshire.

Lord Bingham said the school was fully justified in acting as it did.

"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.

"The rules laid down were as far from being mindless as uniform rules could ever be. The school had enjoyed a period of harmony and success to which the uniform policy was thought to contribute."

He said the rules were acceptable to mainstream Muslim opinion. It was feared that acceding to Shabina's request would or might have significant adverse repercussions.

"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 judgment on a matter as sensitive as this," said Lord Bingham.

"The power of decision has been given to them for the compelling reason that they are best placed to exercise it, and I see no reason to disturb their decision."

Shabina, now 17, took the school's headteacher and governors to court for denying her the "right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs" under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.

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 and her brother, Shuweb Rahman, announced that the rules of her religion required her to wear the head-to-toe jilbab in future.

Shabina was sent home to change. She did not return to the school and later enrolled at another school where the jilbab was permitted.

The Law Lords had heard that 75% of pupils at Denbigh High were Muslim and, at the time Shabina was admitted, the headteacher was Muslim.

The faith was represented on the parent teacher association and governing body.

To try to accommodate all faiths, the school adopted the shalwar kameez, a garment worn by many faiths on the Indian sub-continent.

According to the school's lawyers, among Shabina's objections was that the kameez was worn by "disbelieving women".

But Shabina's counsel, Cherie Booth QC, said that was incorrect. Her objection was that the kameez was no longer suitable for her because she had reached sexual maturity and it did not sufficiently protect her modesty.