School uniforms and a setback for common sense

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The high court may have had little choice but to reject the 15-year-old schoolgirl Shabina Begum's claim that her human right to an education was infringed when she was stopped from wearing a full-length Muslim jilbab in the classroom.

The high court may have had little choice but to reject the 15-year-old schoolgirl Shabina Begum's claim that her human right to an education was infringed when she was stopped from wearing a full-length Muslim jilbab in the classroom. Ms Begum has missed two years of tuition since her stand-off with teachers began. But the court reasoned that she excluded herself from class by her own breach of a school uniform policy that was deemed proportionate to the aim of running a state high school attended by pupils of multiple faiths.

But this apparent victory for reason is a setback for common sense, and raises unwelcome echoes of the the French ban on "conspicuous religious symbols", including Muslim headscarves, in state schools.

The dispute could have been resolved amicably if her school had observed the government guideline that pupils are not excluded for breaching uniform policy. In its defence, the school claims to operate a permissive environment which allows Muslim girls to wear the shalwar kameez, or trousers and tunic, but draws the line at a shroud covering the entire body. This may seem like a reasonable rule which promotes a sense of communal identity because the shalwar kameez is worn by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. But why apply an arbitrary boundary to the right to a religious form of dress? If the school allows scarves and long trousers and tunic, it is not such a great leap to a long dress which, to Ms Begum, is an important badge of her culture and beliefs. The school's objections to the jilbab on health and safety grounds seem entirely spurious.

Ms Begum appears to have been an exemplary student in all other respects .Now she feels compelled to look for another school.

Moreover, the perception of the ruling by some Muslims as a further encroachment on their rights shows how such disputes can become politicised, pandering to Islamophobic elements on the one hand, while on the other radicalising young Muslims. We only have to look to France to know what happens when school dress codes becomea rallying point for much wider and more inflammatory debates about Islam and integration.

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