Saturday, March 05, 2005

School uniform

A Muslim girl has won a legal battle to wear the jilbab - a garment that covers all of her body with the exception of her face and hands - in school, even though it is not the school uniform.

She said: "As a young woman growing up in a post 9/11 Britain, I have witnessed a great deal of bigotry from the media, politicians and legal officials. This bigotry resulted from my choice to wear a piece of cloth, not out of coercion, but out of my faith and belief in Islam. It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this attire."

Even commenting about this "in a negative manner" means that I am likely to be regarded as Islamophobic, racist, patronising to children and sexist. However, by choosing to make these statements in an adult, public arena, she has invited an adult, public response - and whereas she had the attention of the nation's media, this blog is only likely to command the attention of a few people.

I have no doubt that it is difficult to be a Muslim in the UK. Whilst we don't face racial and cultural prejudice, it isn't even easy being a Christian - and this is supposed to be a Christian country. However, "this bigotry" did not result from her choice to wear the jilbab. It actually resulted from her choice not to wear the school uniform. If any child chose to ignore a school's uniform policy, they could expect to incur a disciplinary procedure.

Hitherto, schools have had the right to establish a uniform as they saw fit - this is a process that involves the whole school community. In the case of the school that this girl attended, it had already shown its cultural sensitivity to Islam by allowing girls to wear shalwar kameez and headscarves.

The contract between the school and individual pupils has, as a consequence of this ruling, been broken down - no wonder the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, Martin Ward, said: "The ruling is not at all clear in what will be expected of schools. It states that schools have a right to uniform policies but students also have a right to disregard them." No wonder that the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, said: "This is a legal minefield and heads and governors urgently need guidance from the DfES."

I am governor of a church school. The situation we face is the same but in mirror image. Our uniform demonstrates the Christian nature of the school - but some people - despite accepting a place at the school because they were happy with the education offered there - having started children at the school decide they are not happy with the religious nature, and in some cases ask even to opt out of the school uniform. This ruling would appear to allow them to do so.

I would have thought that a more common-sense ruling would be to conclude that a student accepting a place at a school is accepting the religious ethos of the school - whether it is an essentially secular school, or a faith school - and that if the student or parents are not prepared to accept the religious ethos of the school - however it is expressed - they should seek an alternative school. If the school community as a whole decides it wants to change the religious ethos of the school, then by all means change it - but if the school ethos has the tacit consensus of the school community, then it seems inappropriate to elevate the rights of one person above the rights of the whole community.

The situation is different from the situation in France, where there has been a decision at national level to ban clothing that demonstrates religious identity in all state schools - a decision which I, along with both Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups, believe is a violation of human rights. Whereas in France, the decision is effectively to exclude all religious identity from school pupils, in the UK, such decisions are left to the schools. But to override the rights of the school to have a uniform with the rights of an individual to opt out is legal stupidity - the only gainers will be lawyers. How come they always come out of these things so well??!

I also wanted to react to her comment about the "so-called free world". The existing uniform policy of the school was not to her liking - it did not allow her to express her religious beliefs in the way in which she regarded as appropriate. However, the "so-called free world" in which she finds herself allows her - a female below the age of suffrage, who is receiving free secondary education - to secure legal representation, have this uniform policy written down as unconstitutional, switch to a school in which she was able to express her beliefs as she chose, and air her opinions in the national media. Now, am I imagining it, or does this represent a level of freedom that far exceeds what anybody might expect to have with the exceptions of a handful of the ruling elite in about 80% of the countries of the world? Is it my imagination, or is this a level of freedom that is not enjoyed by most followers of Islam in states where Islam is the national religion - let alone by any followers of other religions?

1 comment:

Liz said...

Just surfing through the blogosphere and saw your post. So glad to hear a voice of reason!
I agree--the girl has a ability to switch schools, and is, regardless of what she may say about the free world, still very free.
If that is the closest thing to religious oppression that you have in the UK, you should thank God. So many people in other parts of the world have it so much harder....