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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 March, 2005, 20:53 GMT
Schoolgirl wins Muslim gown case
Shabina Begum
Shabina Begum wants to wear a full-length jilbab gown to school
A girl was unlawfully excluded from school for wearing a traditional Muslim gown, Appeal Court judges have ruled.

Lord Justice Brooke said Denbigh High School, in Luton, Beds, denied Shabina Begum, 16 - now at another school - the right to manifest her religion.

He called for more guidance for schools on complying with the Human Rights Act.

Miss Begum called the ruling a victory for Muslims who wanted to "preserve their identity and values". The school said it had lost on a technicality.

Miss Begum, whose parents are both dead, had worn a regulation shalwar kameez (trousers and tunic) until September 2002 when she informed the school authorities she intended to wear a full-length gown called a jilbab.

It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this attire
Shabina Begum

Speaking outside court Miss Begum, who now attends a school where the jilbab is allowed, said Denbigh High School's action could not be viewed merely as a local decision taken in isolation.

"Rather it was a consequence of an atmosphere that has been created in Western societies post 9/11, an atmosphere in which Islam has been made a target for vilification in the name of the 'war on terror'," she said.

"It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this attire."

Lawyers at the Children's Legal Centre which represented Miss Begum said the judgement was a "landmark victory" which could have wide-ranging consequences for the freedom to manifest religious beliefs and a "significant impact" on school dress codes.

'Onus on school'

In their ruling the Appeal Court judges said the school had a right to set a school uniform policy but nobody had considered Miss Begum had a right recognised by English law.

The onus lay on the school to justify any interference with that right, the judges ruled.

This is a very important ruling on the issue of personal freedoms
Iqbal Sacranie
Muslim Council of Britain

Lord Justice Brooke said: "Instead, it started from the premise that its uniform policy was there to be obeyed: if the claimant did not like it, she could go to a different school."

Although Miss Begum had won her case, she no longer sought an order from the court that the school took her back and no longer sought any damages, he added.

A spokesman for Denbigh High School, where 79% of pupils are Muslims, defended its uniform policy which he said took into account cultural and religious sensitivities.

"The policy was agreed by the governing body following wide consultation with the DFES, pupils, parents, schools and leading Muslim organisations."

'Common-sense approach'

The case had been lost due to a "small, technical breach" of the Human Rights Act, the spokesman added.

"The judges accepted that the school is entitled to have a uniform policy and could see nothing wrong with it," he said.

As an ex-Denbigh High pupil, I feel that everybody should stick to the rules and wear the school uniform
Sunjay, London

A spokesperson for Luton borough council said they would be developing guidance on school uniform and advising Luton schools' governing bodies to review their uniform policy to take account of religious and cultural needs.

The ruling, which has major implications for multi-faith schools in England and Wales, has been welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) as a "common-sense approach".

MCB Secretary-General Iqbal Sacranie said: "The British Muslim community is a diverse community in terms of the interpretation and understanding of their faith and its practice.

"Within this broad spectrum those that believe and choose to wear the jilbab and consider it to be part of their faith requirement for modest attire should be respected."

Shadow education secretary Tim Collins said it should be for "schools alone" to decide their dress code.

"This case yet again reflects the way in which the Human Rights Act is unduly restricting the freedom of head teachers to run their schools in their own way," he said.

"This ruling further strengthens the case for fundamental change or repeal."

Why the Court of Appeal ruled for Shabina Begum

School uniforms may need review
02 Mar 05 |  Education
Traditional dress ruling: Your reaction
02 Mar 05 |  Have Your Say
Schoolgirl loses Muslim gown case
15 Jun 04 |  Education
School reviews headscarf ban
28 Jan 04 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts

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