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Girl wins Islamic dress war

London, March 2: In a landmark judgment affecting thousands of Muslim girls in Britain, the court of appeal ruled today that a school has discriminated against a 15-year-old student by refusing to allow her to wear the 'head-to- toe' jilbab (Islamic dress) in the classroom.

What has made this case especially high profile is that the student, Shabina Begum, is represented by Tony Blair's wife, who practises under her maiden name, Cherie Booth, QC.

Britain's stance is directly opposite to that of France where state schools have banned religious symbols, such as the hijab, the cross and the Sikh turban.

In Britain, the court of appeal ruled in favour of Shabina, who had accused the head teachers and governors of Denbigh High School, Luton, Bedfordshire, of denying her the 'right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs'.

Lord Justice Brooke, vice-president of the civil division of the court of appeal, called on the department of education to give schools more guidance on how to comply with their obligations under the Human Rights Act.

He ruled that her school had 'unlawfully excluded her', 'unlawfully denied her the right to manifest her religion' and 'unlawfully denied her access to suitable and appropriate education'.

The Prime Minister's wife, who is a well-known human rights and women's issue lawyer, told the judges in a hearing at the end of last year that the case involved 'fundamental issues' about the nature and interpretation of Shabina's rights to education and freedom to practise her religion.

The appeal court has overturned the decision of the high court, which had ruled in favour of Shabina's school. It is now open to the school to take the row to the House of Lords.

Whatever happens, a can of worms has now been opened.

Last June, high court judge Justice Bennett dismissed the girl's application for judicial review. He had said Shabina had failed to show that the 'highly successful' 1,000-pupil school, where 79 per cent of the students were Muslim, had excluded her or breached her human rights.

To this, Booth said Justice Bennett was saying that the school, which sent Shabina home after she refused to wear authorised school uniform, was entitled to 'pick and choose' which religious beliefs it accepted.

Justice Bennett had said Denbigh High School had the 'legitimate aim' of running a multi-cultural, multi-faith secular school.

The judge's decision was supported by David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

'The fact that other schools allow Muslim dress is totally irrelevant,' Hart had said. 'The issue is whether an individual school has the right to lay down a uniform policy that it considers to be reasonable for its community.'

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, had said: 'We are very pleased. The school had made a very clear effort to design a uniform within a multicultural policy, which is not to be overturned by a single pupil.'

The school's view was: 'One of the reasons we have school uniform is to protect pupils from pressure from whatever quarter. I think other schools will take encouragement from the judgment in being supportive of a uniform policy even where you have deeply held religious convictions.'

Shabina, whose parents are no longer alive, had worn salwar-kameez from when she entered the school at the age of 12 until September 2002, when she and her brother, Shuweb Rahman, informed assistant headteacher Stuart Moore that she would wear it no longer.

After today's judgment, Shabina, now 16 and attending a school where the jilbab is allowed, said: 'Today's decision is a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry.'

Standing next to her brother, she said: 'The decision of Denbigh High School to prevent my adherence to my religion cannot unfortunately be viewed as merely 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'.'

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