Shamim Chowdhury: We have more urgent issues to fight for than dress codes

Shabina Begum's case has exposed Muslims to even more anti-Islamic sentiment
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The Independent Online

At the Masjid-al-Haram, the holiest of mosques in the sacred city of Mecca, thousands of Muslims flock daily to perform pilgrimage and offer prayers. The women among them are modestly dressed in accordance with the laws of the faith. Large swathes of cloth cover even the finest strand of hair, and unassuming garments disguise any hint of body shape.

But here the uniformity ends. While long black burkhas and jilbabs dominate, sartorial choices vary widely from colourful salwar kameezes, as worn by the multitudes of Pakistanis, to ankle-length skirts with matching hooded capes, as favoured by the Malaysians and Indonesians, to the billowing, flower-printed capes adorned by the Somalis. The message this image sends out is clear; modesty is paramount, but beyond that Islam does not dictate dress code.

This is reinforced by passages of the Holy Koran, which lay down injunctions for Muslim women to be covered, but refer to nothing more than "outer garments". To this day, scholars of Islam continue to debate about what constitutes propriety in terms of dress code, and have yet to come to agreement.

The Court of Appeal's decision on Wednesday, which overruled the decision to ban the Muslim teenager Shabina Begum from wearing a jilbab to school, can only serve to add to the confusion. Shabina, a 16-year-old orphan, took legal action against Denbigh High School in Luton, claiming it had denied her the right to practise her religion and education by refusing her permission to wear the jilbab.

She broke the school's uniform code in September, 2002 by wearing the loose full-length gown on the first day of term, her justification being that her chosen garment covered her arms and legs completely and was thus in accordance with her Islamic beliefs. The school sent her home; it argued that the jilbab was a safety hazard and would create a hierarchy of piety among the pupils - 80 per cent of whom are Muslims. Shabina ended up missing two crucial years of schooling while legal action ensued.

As a Muslim woman, I believe the Court of Appeal's decision was wrong.

No one was asking Shabina to wear Western clothes. Had that been the case, the Muslim community would have been perfectly within its rights to be up in arms, on the grounds that even a school with an existing uniform policy should at least consider bending the rules for individuals with strong religious beliefs. The human rights argument would, in that case, have been a legitimate one that could have been dealt with in the courts.

As it is, Denbigh High had already accommodated the wishes of the vast majority of its pupils by introducing a uniform that consisted of a long-sleeved loose-fitting tunic, as in a salwar kameez, and headscarf. This was implemented by the headmistress - herself a Muslim - with the consultation and agreement of religious clerics and the community. By taking this step, the school had demonstrated sensitivity and respect for Islam and to its pupils and their families.

Shabina was fully aware that the school had a uniform policy when she started there, and had been happy to go along with it until she had a change of heart. Furthermore, she was the only pupil who had argued for the jilbab.

Had the Court of Appeal decided in favour of the school, it would in no way have suggested a wider anti-Islamic agenda. It cannot be compared to the abhorrently racist headscarf ban in France. This case was not about government policy. It was one girl's dispute with her school over a uniform code.

But what is most disturbing about this case is that by making our dress code the subject of public scrutiny, we Muslims have exposed ourselves to even more anti-Islamic sentiment. Shabina's story suggests a distorted set of priorities on the part of Muslims, a preoccupation with relatively small, unimportant concerns at a time when the focus ought be on so many other serious obstacles facing us today.

Discrimination, in some form or other, has become a daily part of the lives of millions of Muslims in Britain. We are being stopped and searched, arrested randomly and held in custody without charge. All in the name of the prevention of "terror". Many of us are spat at, verbally abused, vilified, criminalised and demonised. Surely these are the issues we should be fighting to keep on the agenda, and not the grievance of one lone schoolgirl?

Furthermore, by bickering among ourselves in public over who is most appropriately dressed, all we achieve is to give the bigots even more ammunition with which to attack us. We also play into the hands of sanctimonious Western feminists who continue to churn out tired, arrogant arguments about how the hijab is oppressive and enslaving.

Shabina Begum's case should never have gone to court. It has made Muslims appear fragmented and bogged down with dogma at a time when we should be standing strong; displaying a united front against the mounting hostilities we face every single day.

Shabina thought she was fighting for the Muslim cause but has ended up achieving the reverse, and that is the greatest irony of all.

shamimcuk@yahoo.co.uk

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