| Shabina Begum in London. (Reuters)
London, March 22: The law lords, the highest court in Britain, today settled a long running legal dispute by backing a comprehensive school which sent home Shabina Begum, a Muslim girl who had insisted on wearing the head to toe Islamic dress called the jilbab.
Denbeigh High School in Luton, Bedfordshire, where 75 per cent of the pupils were Muslims, had worked out a policy of allowing girls to wear the salwar kameez with a head scarf after consulting parents and community leaders.
But this was not enough for Shabina, now 17, who took her head teachers and school governors to court in 2002. She argued that her human rights were violated if she was not allowed to practice her religion by wearing the jilbab.
In a legal case with many twists and turns, she lost her case in the high court, won in the appeal court and lost again today in the Lords. She and her advisers have the option of taking the dispute to the European Court of Human Rights.
The case has caused much agonising in Britain where, in sharp contrast to the ban on hijabs in government schools in France, pupils are given a considerable degree of latitude if they want to wear Islamic dresses to classes.
In Shabina’s case, however, it was felt she had taken religious observance too far by wearing clothes which were not safe for laboratory work, for example.
What has given the case added interest is that Shabina has been represented by the Prime Minister’s wife, Cherie Booth, queen’s counsel, who is a determined human rights lawyer, especially where women’s issues are involved.
However, others have claimed that it was not Shabina who wished to make a stand but hardline Muslim groups, who wanted to use her to see how far the boundaries could be pushed.
Despite the political background to the case, their lordships made their judgment today on purely legal grounds. One of the three law lords, Lord Bingham, said the school was fully justified in acting as it did.
His judgment was: “It had taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs but did so in an inclusive, unthreatening and uncompetitive way. The school had enjoyed a period of harmony and success to which the uniform policy was thought to contribute.”
Agreeing, Lord Hoffmann said there had been nothing to stop Shabina going to a single-sex school where her religion did not require a jilbab or a school where she was allowed to wear one. “Instead, she and her brother decided that it was the school’s problem. They sought a confrontation and claimed that she had a right to attend the school of her own choosing in the clothes she chose to wear.”
Baroness Hale also agreed that the school’ appeal should be allowed.
Her judgment was: “Young girls from ethnic, cultural or religious minorities growing up here face particularly difficult choices: how far to adopt or to distance themselves from the dominant culture. A good school will enable and support them. This particular school is a good school: that, it appears, is one reason why Shabina Begum wanted to stay there.”
Cultural and religious diversity was respected by allowing girls to wear either a skirt, trousers, or the salwar kameez, and by allowing those who wished to do so to wear the hijab.
“This was indeed a thoughtful and proportionate response to reconciling the complexities of the situation,” said Hale. “This is demonstrated by the fact that girls have subsequently expressed their concern that if the jilbab were to be allowed they would face pressure to adopt it even though they do not wish to do so.”
The girl’s counsel ' Cherie Booth ', Cherie Blair, had explained that Shabina felt her previous uniform did not sufficiently protect her modesty because she had reached sexual maturity.
Shabina said today: “Obviously I am saddened and disappointed about this, but I am quite glad it is all over and I can move on now. I had to make a stand against this and I am just happy it is all over now.”
She added: “Even though I lost, I have made a stand. Many women out there will not speak up about what they actually want. I still don’t see why I was told to go home from school when I was just practising my religion.”