A judge, a robe and a devout young woman

It is disturbing that an English court enters so complex an area as the dress code for Muslims

The case of Shabina Begum is one which I find almost impossible to come to any kind of sensible conclusion over. She is a fifteen-year-old pupil, who has sued her school, Denbigh High School in Luton, over its uniform policies. The school, in which approaching 80 per cent of the pupils are of Muslim background, has a relatively flexible uniform code. Pupils may wear a skirt, trousers, or a shalwar kameez, the Muslim dress of trousers and a long tunic.

Shabina initially wore the shalwar kameez. However, as she grew more committed to her faith, she came to the conclusion that Islam did not, in fact, permit the wearing of the shalwar kameez, and decided, if she were to be a good Muslim, she should wear a still less revealing form of dress, the jilbab. This is a long robe, which covers everything except the face and the hands.

The school disagreed, and argued that the shalwar kameez was good enough. The long robe presented, they thought, a danger in terms of "health and safety" - that catch-all objection under which all official injunctions on anything at all seem to be filed these days. In addition, they argued that permitting different degrees of Muslim dress was a dangerous step socially, in that it would introduce the question of who, among the pupils, could classify themselves as a "good" Muslim, compared to apostates - as if this could never arise otherwise.

Shabina was excluded, or excluded herself, from school, and sued them for depriving her of an education. The judge found for the school. In his view, the shalwar kameez was good enough for anyone, and they were justified in forbidding the long robe.

The story seems to us somewhat absurd, and it is admittedly slightly difficult to sympathise with Miss Begum. If we don't share her interest in religion, we won't be able to understand why a God should care whether or not the gawping populace should be able to see the outline of an ankle or the ankle itself; how long a beard should be; whether or not we turn in a particular direction when making some or all prayers; whether we should give up food for Lent or during daylight in Ramadan or meat on Fridays; whether or not we should wear clothes of mixed fibres or eat prawns. For many of us, a God who cared about any of these things would not really be a God worth our worship.

Furthermore, it is clear that, although Miss Begum and some young women like her are perfectly sincere in wishing to follow religious dictates to the furthest edge of their conscience, there are many more who would prefer that their families were not given this choice. In short, if a willing devotee, like her, is permitted to wear the jilbab or even to dissect a frog in biology classes through a narrow horizontal slit in a black face-mask, then other girls will be obliged to take up this extreme form of dress under the duress of their families. At present, the relative freedom of the shalwar kameez is permitted to some people because of the insistence of their schools; if stricter forms of dress are allowed, they will be forced on some girls against their will.

The whole question of Muslim women's dress is an extraordinarily fraught one, and Islam itself debates ceaselessly what propriety consists of. If some authorities do, indeed, say that the shape of the body must not be revealed, that nothing but the face and hands should be shown, that dress must be clearly distinct from the habitual dress of the non-believer, there is also a condition, which Miss Begum clearly wishes to break, that "clothing should not be worn for the sole purpose of gaining reputation or increasing one's status in society".

Furthermore, the Koran's injunction, that women "should not display their beauty and ornaments" is immediately preceded by an equal injunction that men should "lower their gaze and keep their modesty". Islam is absolutely clear that, however women dress, men have an equal obligation to control their thoughts. It is perfectly possible to argue, even from an Islamic standpoint, that Miss Begum has misunderstood her duties.

However, I am not an Islamic scholar, and would not presume to tell any Muslim what his or her duties are. That is a matter for their conscience. And there is something slightly disturbing about an English court entering into so very complex an area as the dress code for Muslim women, and presuming to instruct one how far their conscience may take them.

Miss Begum's school, and the judge, seemed to think there is only one degree of propriety in the matter of women's dress and conscience, and that would be satisfied by the admission of the shalwar kameez. That is not so; there are many degrees of propriety and devotion, each of which regards others as disgracefully lax or pedantic.

I think any decision other than this one would have led to the curtailing of the freedom of many unwilling young women. On the other hand, there is no doubt that Miss Begum, and many like her, are being obliged to dress in ways they would consider immodest and an affront to the stated principles of their religion. There is no easy solution here if, as we must, we try to keep all shades of faith and culture within our own Western civilisation. But this judge, and this school, did no one a favour by seeming to express impatience with one devout young woman.