Thursday, March 23, 2006

School uniforms

A random search of other Blogspot bloggers shows that most agree with the House of Lords verdict that a school could exclude a pupil for refusing to wear uniform in favour of a jilbab. However some of the comments brought up are a little disturbing to say the least.

At the most basic level this seems like another case of the courts once more upholding the necessary powers of schools in difficult matters. But it is hard not to notice the wider problems this case has brought up.

Schools are traditionally not bastions of democracy, liberty and individualism. Orders are passed down from upon high, the pupils have little say in where they are and what they do (and there are punishments called "detention" - I wonder how long it will be before someone tries to get a writ of habeus corpus!) and dissent is looked down upon in favour of uniformity. School uniforms are one of the most visible means by which all pupils can be put on the same level, undermining superiority complexes and helping to break down social and cultural barriers between pupils. But for it to be able to do this schools need control over their uniform policies. From this perspective the outcome of the case should be clearly in favour of the school.

But then we are faced with the question of the right of people to wear religious dress. The Law Lords however covered this in their ruling:

Article Nine [of the Human Rights Convention] does not require that one should be allowed to manifest one's religion at any time and place of one's own choosing. Common civility also has a place in the religious life." Lord Hoffmann said.
The pupil in question, Shabina Begun, had been at the school for two years and had not expressed dissent from the school's uniform policy:
Lady Hale pointed out that the school had respected cultural and religious diversity by allowing girls to wear a skirt, trousers, or the shalwar kameez, with or without a headscarf. This was a "thoughtful and proportionate response", as shown by the fact that girls were worried that they would come under pressure to wear the jilbab if it had been permitted.
Described variously as a triumph of common sense by Miriam's ideas or more bluntly Shabina Begum gets told off by the Lords by Narcissistic views on News/Politics, the case has won support from bloggers across the globe. GayandRight has even asked Could you imagine a ruling like this in Canada??? It's hard at a glance to see any bloggers supporting Shabina's appeal on an initial search.

Any school uniform policy needs to strike a balance. It needs to be acceptable to most pupils and supported by their families, achieve the purposes and not prove a source of disruption. The school in question had gone to great lengths to have a policy that commanded support across the Muslim community and which is accepted by the vast majority of pupils - indeed as pointed out some find the policy to be protective. In such circumstances, what as the school to do? As Muslim WakeUp! puts it:
Shabina’s school did not prevent her from wearing a headscarf. Unlike French schools which have banned the hijab outright, Shabina’s school went out of its way to accommodate the needs of students who are nearly 80 percent Muslim, speak 40 different languages and who are from 21 different ethnic groups.

Students could wear the regular uniform or they could wear a shalwar kameez, which consists of loose-fitting trousers and a long tunic. They could wear a headscarf as long as it conformed to certain criteria. In order to satisfy the needs of the diverse background of its students, the school consulted with pupils, parents, schools and leading Muslim organizations when it was formulating its uniform policy.

And yet this was not enough for Shabina who wore the shalwar kameez from the time she enrolled at the school when she was 12 until September 2002 when she suddenly decided to wear the jilbab, a long loose fitting one-piece item that covers the body from head to ankles.

Her school refused to allow her to attend until she resumed wearing the approved uniform. Shabina took the school to court but her case was rejected by High Court judges last summer. The school had argued that allowing her to wear a jilbab would impact on the rights of other Muslim girl pupils who opposed allowing the jilbab as they felt that it would create a hierarchy of belief at the school.

Her school was right. What has become of our faith that it has turned into a competition over who can cover the most? Who convinces young Muslim women that they must cover more and more, going far beyond what is deemed the modest clothing that Islam requires of men and women?
To non-Muslims the details of the debate within Islam about what clothing is required can be difficult to fathom. The school clearly did everything reasonable to seek a broad consensus which did not meet an outcry until two years after Shabina had started at the school. It would have been unworkable to rip up the carefully researched and agreed existing uniform policy for the sake of a single pupil. Philosophically the case raises the difficult question of how far tolerance can run. Schools do not have the luxury of an ideal philosophical situation. They have to operate effectively.

As for Shabina, she has now switched schools and so is able to receive her education. And is this the last we have heard of her? Seb's Blag doesn't think so:
So, Shabina lost her case, but what will history's verdict be? Is she a Muslim extremist, when all's said and done, at least in terms of her beliefs? I don't think so. Misled, possibly; naive, probably; young, definitely. Most importantly though, I'd say she's a Brit with true grit. And I won't be surprised if we see a lot more of her in future.
But will we see more furore over uniform in schools? Only time will tell. But I hope that this country reaches a solution that is far more workable and tolerant than France's ideological ban on the hijab.

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