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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 June, 2004, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Q and A: Muslim school uniform
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter

BBC News Online explains why the Islamic school uniform ruling against Luton student Shabina Begum may have wider implications than first expected.

What is Shabina Begum's complaint?

Shabina Begum is a 15-year-old student who should be attending Denbigh High School in Luton. But for two years she has been out of school in a dispute over uniform.

The row began when she decided she wanted to wear a stricter form of Islamic dress for young women which covers all of the body except face and hands.

In September 2002 she turned up wearing a long flowing garment known as a jilbab - essentially an ankle-length skirt.

The school objected, saying there was an agreed Islamic-style uniform of shalwar kameez - a trouser suit with covering jerkin. This uniform was agreed by the governors, among whom are members of the local Muslim community.

Miss Begum was sent home and told to change. She has not been in classes since.

So this is not about the headscarf?

The school's management has never objected to Miss Begum wearing an Islamic headscarf known as a Hejab and many of Miss Begum's fellow students do so.

Miss Begum said wearing the jilbab is a religious act in itself. The shalwar kameez may meet the need for modest dress but it is also worn by people from other faiths. But, others disagree.

Critics say guidance on Islamic dress does not specifically define the jilbab as the garment for a young woman.

What about other state schools?

Some schools allow the jilbab - others likes Denbigh don't. Another school in Luton recently had a potential dispute with a pupil along similar lines but was able to amicable resolve it.

So, legally speaking, what was Miss Begum's complaint?

Firstly, she argued her rights to religious freedom had been breached because she was being forced to accept an interpretation of Islamic dress laid down by the school.

Secondly, she argued the school's failure to reach a settlement had breached her right to an education.

What was the school's response in court?

The school argued it had done its utmost to uphold her religious freedoms by widely consulting Islamic scholars. Their verdicts had been mixed - they neither ruled out the shalwar kameez nor exclusively approved of the jilbab.

The school said it had been concerned a stricter styles of Islamic dress would create divisions among the students. Some girls could face being forced to wearing the jilbab, argued lawyers, though there was no suggestion this had been the case with Miss Begum.

On her right to an education, the school argued it had tried to compromise with Miss Begum but talks had come to nothing.

What about government - surely there are official guidelines?

There are indeed - but they are open to interpretation. The Department for Education and Skills' official guidelines says that uniform policy must be sensitive to differences and the need to adhere to dress for racial or religious reasons.

It stresses that a pupil should not be disciplined for refusing to adhere to a uniform for religious reasons, and that exclusion on these grounds is even less appropriate. Miss Begum's lawyers argued the school had breached these official rules.

So what did the judge say?

Ruling in favour of the school, Mr Justice Bennett said school uniform policy had "a legitimate aim", which was the proper running of a multi-cultural, multi-faith secular school".

He said Miss Begum's human rights had not been breached because the school had demonstrated it had acted proportionately in deciding on the uniform.

"She had for two years worn the school uniform," said Mr Justice Bennett. "Abruptly, at least so it seemed to the [school], she changed her beliefs, which put the defendant in a very awkward situation.

"The [school] wanted the claimant to continue to be educated at Denbigh High School and made every effort to persuade her to return.

"The fact that she felt that she could not change her mind does not invalidate the fact that she had a choice."

How important is this ruling?

One of the most interesting points it has raised is whether the rights of a pupil to be schooled in a secular environment are breached by overt symbols of religion.

Mr Justice Bennett said the school's refusal to allow Miss Begum to wear the jilbab was justified on the basis that it may infringe the rights of other students to be identified with a secular school environment.

The question is whether this step would have tipped the balance between a secular and religious environment. In this sense, the arguments are much closer to the ongoing row in France over the wearing of the hejab than first thought.

Yvonne Spencer, Miss Begum's lawyer, said her client entirely disagreed with this point because all they wanted was for the jilbab to be an "optional extra".

She had not been seeking to impose her choice of dress on any other student, Ms Spencer stressed.

So what happens now?

The school authorities say they want to see Miss Begum back in the school but Ms Spencer said her client regarded this as "out of the question" at present.

The judge refused Miss Begum permission to appeal the ruling - but she can still try and take it further.

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