Joan Smith: Our schools are no place for the jilbab. Or for the Creationists

The debate about Islamic dress has been muted, out of politeness
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When the House of Lords ruled against a young woman who wanted to wear an extreme form of Islamic dress to school, it wasn't only a defeat for the pupil who brought the case. Shabina Begum had argued that Denbigh High School in Luton was wrong to refuse to allow her to wear the jilbab, but the law lords decided last week that the school, which drew up its dress code in consultation with Muslim parents, had not interfered with her right to manifest her religion. Ms Begum is disappointed, but the decision marked the moment in Britain when the State, faced by religious extremism, drew a line .

The battle lines are also being drawn over the teaching of creationism in state schools. Bizarre as it seems, there are people who believe that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Taking their cue from proponents of so-called "intelligent design" in the US, they are clamouring for such nonsense to be taught as an alternative to Darwinism. It is already happening in a small number of state schools, including two city academies founded the businessman Sir Peter Vardy, a development condemned last week by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

The logical outcome is a weird scenario in which taxpayers foot the bill as Muslim girls, covered from head to toe, are taught the literal truth about Adam and Eve. The opening chapters of Genesis display a degree of misogyny that would surely appeal to Muslim extremists. Ms Begum's well-meaning but misguided supporters - and I include her QC, Cherie Booth - should acquaint themselves with the sexual disgust expressed by Islamic authorities who argue in favour of covering girls and women. They condemn women who "flaunt" themselves in push-up bras, so revealing a suspiciously detailed knowledge of modern underwear and a toxic combination of desire and loathing. Some go further, arguing that women should not be allowed to mix with men at work, and should stay at home as much as possible. In Ms Begum's case, she was encouraged by the Islamic organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, with which her elder brother has connections, and which campaigns to segregate the sexes in public institutions such as schools. In this country, unlike France, the debate about Islamic dress has been muted - largely, I think, out of politeness and a reluctance to criticise ethnic minorities. But most women I know, including some from Muslim countries, are secretly horrified by the hijab, the jilbab and the burqa - the whole practice of covering women.

Ms Begum has something in common with evangelical Christians who want creationism to be taught in British schools: all advocate ideas quite at odds with the values of the society in which they live. Supporters of "intelligent design" are anti-scientific, trying to put creation myths on an equal footing with theories based on fossil records. Muslim extremists want a society in which women are denied the status of full citizens.

Under a government that is recklessly expanding the number of faith schools, religious extremists have spotted an opportunity. As so often since Tony Blair became Prime Minister, it has been left to the House of Lords to act, halting a dangerous process under which fundamentalists seek to extend their influence on state education. They are entitled to their views, no matter how absurd, but they cannot expect special treatment in schools where most pupils and their parents want to inhabit a rational world in which men and women enjoy equal rights.