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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 February, 2004, 16:38 GMT
British criticism of headscarf ban
By Shola Adenekan

students in headscarves using computers
Religious garb has not been an issue in the same way in the UK
British Muslims and the government have joined ranks in condemning the French for trying to ban religious headwear and symbols in state schools.

Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians - the French ban is not only facing opposition from British politicians but from students across religious divides.

The London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, fears the ban will spill over to the rest of Europe and encourage attacks on minority communities.

Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien said the British government supported the right of all people to display religious symbols.

"In Britain we are comfortable with the expression of religion," Mr O'Brien said in a statement.

"Integration does not require assimilation."

Class distinctions

School uniform policy is more tolerant in Britain than in most European countries.

Students generally have the right in state-run schools to wear religious garb such as a Jewish skullcap, a Muslim scarf or a crucifix, although restrictions can be made if the school has a dress code that is not directed at a particular faith.

"In Britain, we can be pragmatic on religious headscarves," said Peter Oppenheimer, president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

"Religion has always been part of the school day. We don't have the French problem of the revolution, which brought about conflict between the Church and the state.

"Besides, uniform extinguishes distinction between social classes."

Tradition

While some people say religious symbols and clothing should be removed from state schools, students who wear them say it is one of their basic human rights to observe these practices, irrespective of the institution.

"The need to wear a head covering in the Jewish religion is a traditional one," said Danny Stone, spokesman for the Union of Jewish Students.

"It is known as a 'Minhag'. Jewish people wear it as a sign of respect, a way of humbling themselves before God.

"It does not harm anyone, and certainly does not encourage extremism - a charge levelled by some. Moreover, it is a constant reminder that one must be dignified and humble.

"It is also seen by many as a source of pride in Jewish identity."

Identity

The Muslim Association of Britain labelled the French official commission's recommendation to ban headscarves worn by Muslim women an "outrageous contravention of basic human rights".

The women who are wearing hijabs see them as part of their religion and as symbols of identity
Dr Mahjoob Zweiri, Durham University
"Such policies will only divide European communities and initiate a downward spiral towards bigotry, xenophobia and extremism of all sorts and colours.

"We must never allow this to occur," said Anas Altikriti, the association's spokesperson.

In general, the Islamic guidelines on clothing are the same in educational establishments as elsewhere.

"The women who are wearing hijabs see them as part of their religion and as symbols of identity," said Dr Mahjoob Zweiri of Durham University's Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

Diversity

Religion experts say the British tradition of managing diversity, especially religious, has worked reasonably well over the years and has accommodated religious differences without overt hostility.

"Copying the French example in Britain would be an extremely retrograde measure and unsustainable," said Prof Gurharpal Singh, an expert on Sikh religion at Birmingham University's department of theology.

"The experience of turban campaigns since the 1960s is that they are always successful.

"Devoted, baptised Sikhs are required to wear turban and the five Ks -small dagger, unshorn hair, a bangle, a small comb and long shorts."

The Department of Education and Skills said rules on dress codes and symbols were not its responsibility but that of the governors of each school.

However, this stand can cause confusion and there have been sporadic cases in which schools have attempted to ban headscarves or persuade Muslim girls not to wear them, usually from a belief that they disrupt the school environment.

Schools do not know what or not to ban. For example, a school trying to limit gang activity or religious extremism may set a dress code that incidentally bars religious clothing.

Co-ordination

Governors at Icknield High School in Luton were going to ban religious headwear when the local council pointed out they might be contravening the Race Relations Act.

So, on what grounds should a student be disciplined because of the clothes or symbols he or she may be wearing?

"This is not a matter of conforming to a dress code," said Prof Singh.

"If the religious dress code is reasonable, it would be unreasonable to object.

"Rule exemption must conform with other necessary requirements and can be justified if the rule is absurd, or in the proposed French legislation, is indefensible in terms of the constraints it imposes on personal and religious liberty."

Peterborough's Bretton Woods Community School was recently involved in another hijab controversy.

The head teacher, John Gribble, said students are challenged only if they are not wearing the specified uniform, which is colour co-ordinated.

"The school has authorised suppliers for blazers, ties, hijab, et cetera," he said.

"Where a student is found to be wearing non-uniform clothing we'll contact the parents and ask them to deliver required uniform to the school."

Mr Gribble said inappropriate clothing - perhaps worn over uniform - may be confiscated then returned to parents.

"We are more concerned to correct and encourage good dress sense than to punish."




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