Britain 's highest appeals court ruled unanimously Wednesday that a school acted properly in refusing to allow a student to wear her choice of Muslim clothing rather than the attire permitted under school policy. Shabina Begum, now 17, last year won a Court of Appeal ruling establishing that Denbigh High School in Luton infringed her rights by not allowing her to wear a jilbab, a long, flowing gown covering all her body except her hands and face.
The school, where four-fifths of the students are Muslim, allows students to wear trousers, skirts or a traditional shalwar kameez, which consists of trousers and a tunic. Girls were allowed to wear head scarves. The school argued that the jilbab posed a health and safety risk and might cause divisions among pupils, with those who wore traditional dress possibly being seen as better Muslims than others.
Lord Justice Bingham said in the ruling Wednesday that the school "had taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs but did so in an inclusive, unthreatening and uncompetitive way." "It was she who had changed her mind about what her religion required of her, rather than the school which had changed its policy," Baroness Hale wrote in her opinion.
"I am uneasy about this. The reality is that the choice of secondary school is usually made by parents or guardians rather than by the child herself." The girl's father died in 1992 but her mother was living in 2002 when the issue arose.
"The rules laid down were as far from being mindless as uniform rules could ever be. The school had enjoyed a period of harmony and success to which the uniform policy was thought to contribute," Bingham said. He noted that the head teacher at the school at the time was a Muslim, and that the rules were acceptable to mainstream Muslims.
Begum was sent home from school in September 2002 for wearing the jilbab. We're not sure if we're going to take it to the European Court or not," Begum told Sky News. "I think I have made my point at this stage," she said, adding that she hoped the case encouraged others to "speak out."
Lord Hoffmann said Begum could have moved to a single-sex school where her religion did not require a jilbab or a school where she was allowed to wear one. "Instead, she and her brother decided that it was the school's problem. They sought a confrontation and claimed that she had a right to attend the school of her own choosing in the clothes she chose to wear," Hoffmann wrote. Lord Nicholls, while joining in ruling for the school, said he thought the court may have underestimated the difficulty she would have faced in changing schools, reports the AP.