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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Islam dress ban 'breached' rights
Shabina Begum
Shabina Begum said her religious rights had been infringed

A school which refused to allow a Muslim pupil to wear a style of Islamic dress breached her human rights, a court has heard.

Shabina Begum, 15, has been out of school for more than a year amid a row over her choice of Islamic dress.

The Luton teenager says her religious rights are being denied over demands she adheres to the school's uniform code.

But the school says it has offered her a choice between a standard uniform and one approved by Islamic scholars.

The row began when Miss Begum told Luton's Denbigh High School in 2002 she wanted to start wearing a 'jilbab' dress. The ankle length gown is worn by some Muslim women who seek to cover their arms and legs, but not faces or hands.

Denbigh refused but said it had an alternative uniform option for its high proportion of Muslim students, the traditional shalwar kameez trousers and jerkin outfit.

Miss Begum insisted on wearing the jilbab - but the school said she could not attend lessons unless she chose an approved uniform.

Since then, education chiefs have sent her to work at home and suggested she goes to another school.

'Position impossible'

Yvonne Spencer, representing the student, told the court Miss Begum's chances of passing her GCSEs were being adversely affected.

The school's treatment amounted to a constructive exclusion because it had made Miss Begum's position impossible, she said.

There has been no lawful basis for this exclusion for wearing clothes for religious reasons
Yvonne Spencer

Ms Spencer said official guidance from the Department for Education and Skills said it was not appropriate to treat uniform disputes as a matter so serious that a student be severely disciplined.

It also made it clear to schools they had to be sensitive of religious requirements.

"This has been a constructive and unlawful exclusion," said Ms Spencer. "There has been no lawful basis for this exclusion for wearing clothes for religious reasons."

'Devout beliefs'

Mediation had been proposed and Miss Begum had agreed to wear the jilbab in the school's colours, said Ms Spencer.

"She is very happy to be identified as a member of the school community. But what she is not prepared to do is sacrifice her devout religious beliefs."

If you choose to go a school with a uniform policy, that is your option
Simon Birks, defending the school

Defending the school, Simon Birks said there had been no breach of Miss Begum's religious freedom under the European Convention on Human Rights, not least because she had chosen that school over others.

"If you choose to go a school with a uniform policy, that is your option," he said. "It is not an infringement of your rights that the school is unprepared to change its policies in order to accommodate your religious views.

"If you do not like it, you can go elsewhere."

Mr Birks said the school had acted entirely within its duties towards Miss Begum, not least because it had widely consulted Islamic scholars for advice, including those at the country's largest mosque in London.

"That was an entirely reasonable course of action to have followed. They were not imposing their own views of the religious requirements. They were making a decision based on what had been placed before them."

Mr Justice Bennett reserved judgment in the case until a later date.

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