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Mar 3 2005
British Court Sides With Girl on Religious Dress

British Court Sides With Girl on Religious Dress


Published: March 2, 2005

LONDON, March 2 - The British Court of Appeal ruled today that a Muslim teenager's rights had been violated by a school's refusal to allow her to wear a body-concealing Muslim gown instead of the school uniform.

The court stopped short of ordering the school to allow the girl, Shabina Begum, to wear her choice of dress - the jilbab, a long shapeless robe. But it said that the school, Denbigh High School in Luton, Bedfordshire, had erred in failing to consider Miss Begum's human rights when it ordered her to put on the standard uniform.

"Her freedom to manifest her religion or belief in public was being limited," Lord Justice Brooke, vice president of the civil division of the Court of Appeal, one of Britain's highest courts, said in his opinion. As an extension of the state, he said, the school should be required to "justify the limitation on her freedom created by the school's uniform code and by the way it was enforced."

Miss Begum, now 16, called the decision "a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identify and values despite prejudice and bigotry."

Standing next to her brother, she told reporters that the school's policy was not "merely a local decision taken in isolation" but part of a larger pattern. "It was a consequence of an atmosphere that has been created in Western societies since 9/11," she said, "an atmosphere in which Islam has been made a target for vilification in the name of the 'war on terror.' "

But a spokeswoman for Luton Borough Council, the local government responsible for Denbigh, said that the case had been lost on a "technicality" concerning the way the decision to deny Miss Begum the right to wear the uniform was reached - not, significantly, on the merits of its uniform policy or on its right to set its own uniform.

"The court held that the school governors, when holding an oral hearing to consider her complaint, should have considered, firstly, whether there had been any infringement of their pupil's right under the European Convention on Human Rights to manifest her religion," said the spokeswoman who, according to borough policy, asked not to be identified by name. "And, secondly, that if there had been such an infringement, could that infringement be justified?"

She said, "It was because the decision was not made in this way that the court ruled in favor of Shabina Begum."

Denbigh has an unusually liberal uniform policy, which Lord Brooke went out of his way to praise. In contrast to French state schools, where pupils are banned from wearing head scarves, Denbigh allows girls a choice: wearing standard pants or skirts, or dressing in a shalwar kameez, a traditional Muslim outfit consisting of loose pants covered by a tunic. Head scarves are allowed as long as they meet certain criteria.

Seventy-nine percent of Denbigh's 1,000 or so students are Muslim; they speak 40 languages and come from 21 different ethnic groups. The uniform policy, the school said in a statement, was established after widespread consultation with pupils, parents, Muslim organizations and others, and "takes into account the cultural and religious sensitivities of pupils at the school."

The Luton spokeswoman said that no one, not even Miss Begum, had complained about the uniform until the day in 2002 that Miss Begum, accompanied by her brother (their parents are dead) came dressed in a jilbab. She was sent home and told to change into a regular uniform. Other students, including Muslims, said they felt threatened by the jilbab because they associated it with extremism, the school said.

In his decision, Lord Brooke said that the government should give schools more guidance in how to comply with human-rights law when setting out their policies on school uniforms.

Miss Begum has since transferred to another school where she is permitted to wear a jilbab.

"This is a very important ruling on the issue of personal freedom," said Iqubal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. Saying that Muslims have a wide range of interpretations of appropriate dress, he added, "Within this broad spectrum, those that believe and choose to wear the jilbab and consider to be part of the faith requirement for modest attire should be respected."

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