School ban on Islamic gown upheld by the High Court

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A Muslim schoolgirl lost her legal bid yesterday to wear a traditional Islamic gown to lessons in a judgment which has wide implications for dress codes in Britain's multi-faith schools.

A Muslim schoolgirl lost her legal bid yesterday to wear a traditional Islamic gown to lessons in a judgment which has wide implications for dress codes in Britain's multi-faith schools.

Shabina Begum, 15, said her human rights were infringed when she was excluded from her school two years ago for wearing a jilbab, an ankle-length garment which covers the body except for face and hands. She has refused to return to Denbigh High School, a mixed-faith comprehensive in Luton where 80 per cent of pupils are Muslim, after she decided wearing the gown was the only way she could conform to her faith.

The High Court rejected the teenager's case by ruling that the school had a right to impose a "reasonable and balanced" uniform policy which stopped short of allowing the jilbab. Lawyers for the headteacher and governors had said they had a flexible uniform policy which allowed Muslim pupils to wear shalwar kameez, consisting of tunic and trousers.

In an echo of the controversy in France, where politicians have passed a law banning the wearing of "ostensible religious symbols", the school said the jilbab could create divisions among students by implying those who wore the flowing garment were "more Muslim" than those who did not.

Mr Justice Bennett, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, said: "Although it appears there is a body of opinion within the Muslim faith that only the jilbab meets the requirements of its dress code, there is also a body of opinion that the shalwar kameez does as well. In my judgment, adoption of the shalwar kameez by the defendant as school uniform for Muslim female pupils was, and continues to be, a reasoned, balanced, proportionate policy."

Shabina, said to be a bright pupil who had been expected to do well in her GCSEs and wants to be a doctor, had worn a jilbab on the first day of the school year in September, 2002. The court was told that the teenager, who had recently lost her Bangladeshi mother, had decided to observe a stricter interpretation of her faith which required her arms, legs and hair to be covered, and that the jilbab was the correct dress "for a mature Islamic woman in public".

She was asked to return home to change her dress and had rejected "every effort" by the school to persuade her to return, Mr Justice Bennett said.

Lawyers for Shabina said the ban on her chosen attire was a denial of her right to education and observance of her religious faith by offering her, in effect, no alternative than to stay away from school.

After the ruling, her solicitor-advocate, Yvonne Spencer, said the decision was "very disappointing" and sent a message about the status of Muslims in British society. As Shabina, described as being "devastated" by the ruling, stood silently beside her, Ms Spencer said: "Her family have asked me to express their view that they feel this decision doesn't help integrate Muslims within our society."

She said the ruling appeared to give a pupil excluded from a school for poor behaviour more of a right to education than a student who was seeking an exemption on grounds of sincerely held beliefs.

Iqbal Javed, the solicitor for Denbigh High, said the school had drawn up its uniform policy after wide consultation, and had won the approval of Luton's Council of Mosques. "The uniform is designed to be inclusive and takes into account the cultural and religious sensitivities of pupils at the school," Mr Javed said. The school also considered the ankle-length jilbab a safety risk which could cause pupils to trip.

Mr Javed said the priority was now to secure Shabina's return to school after the court heard she was falling behind despite tuition at home. But the teenager's legal team said there was "no chance" of her returning to Denbigh and they were considering a further application to the Court of Appeal.

Ms Spencer said there would be negotiations to secure Shabina a place in a new school but insisted the case had wider implications for Muslim parents. She said: "If choosing a secular school with a school uniform policy, they need to examine very carefully whether that is the right school for their child. Shabina has very genuine and firm views."