Shabina Begum, who recently lost her battle to wear the
ankle-length Muslim Jilbab to school, argued that she was being
denied her human rights as well as her right to an education, after
refusing to wear the school uniform in 2002. I worry that the High
Court’s decision denied Shabina, and her fellow students an
education in a cultured and accepting learning environment.
My own North London school was a multi-faith, non-uniform
comprehensive. Everyone had the freedom to dress as they wanted,
regardless of religious beliefs, whether that be Muslims wearing
shlawar kameez or Jews wearing Yarmulke. This multi-cultural
approach gave everyone daily, informal religious education and an
understanding and tolerance of different cultures. As a non-
religious member of this school community I never felt threatened
by my fellow students and was never preached at. In the main the
school was free from religious discrimination.
School uniforms already demand a homogenised dress code among
students, suppressing teenagers’ constant need to express
their individuality, but this becomes a lot worse when a
student’s freedom to wear religious dress is also restricted.
Denbigh High School does allow the 80 per cent of its 1,000
students who are Muslim to wear the shalwar kameez, but the school
argues that allowing Shabina to wear the jilbab would divide
Muslims in the school, worrying that some would be regarded as more
devout than others. There is, however, no evidence that this
division would necessarily occur. In my own school, where no
restrictions were placed on religious or non-religious forms of
dress, there was a mutual respect for different religions and
differing interpretations of individual religions.
As long as there is discussion and communication between
students, schools, and the wider community, there is no need for a
case such as Shabina’s to go as far as the High Court.
Decisions must be fair for all students – regardless of gender,
religion or ethnicity. Many female students prefer to wear trousers
to school, and most uniforms now accommodate this. Shabina’s
school, like many others, needs to become more flexible to allow
all its students to feel comfortable and accepted.
The ruling raises important questions about whether we are doing
enough, not just in schools, but in communities nation-wide, to
accommodate the differing religious and cultural needs of our
citizens. We should be looking forward to all inclusive,
multi-faith schools across Britain that reflect our diverse
religious beliefs. From my own experiences, I strongly believe that
restrictions on the diversity of dress in non-religious schools
simply deny children an opportunity to learn about cultural and
religious differences among their peers. I am sure I would never
have met such a diverse group of individuals if we were all
separated into different schools based upon our religion or
homogenised by our dress. Shabina’s argument is more than a
dispute about a school uniform, it is a struggle for her right to
religious and personal freedom and expression. That is something I
feel needs to be both celebrated and protected.
Caroline Palmer is a recent school leaver.