Monday, April 26, 2010

What would you say about this?

Shabina Begum was a pupil at Denbigh High School, in Luton, Bedfordshire, England, who claimed she had a right to wear a jilbab (a long gown) to school (which she believed was required by her Muslim faith), in contravention of the school uniform policy. The school stated that she was required to attend school dressed in the correct uniform, and Begum refused to attend for three years unless she was allowed to wear the jilbab.

The headmistress and 79% of the pupils at Denbigh High School were [culturally] Muslims. In addition to uniforms incorporating trousers or skirts, female pupils are also offered a uniform based on the Pakistani or Punjabi shalwar kameez with optional khimar. The school uniform was decided upon in consultation with local mosques and parents. Despite this, in the opinion of Begum and her supporters, the particular form of shalwar kameez offered by the school was relatively close-fitting with short sleeves, and was therefore not compliant with the requirements of Islamic dress that appear to be stated in Sharia law. In addition, the jilbab is, in the opinion of Begum and her supporters, a more culturally-neutral form of Islamic attire. Begum was of Bangladeshi descent, where shalwar kameez is the traditional dress.

The school's supporters had claimed that after Begum's parents had died, she had come under the undue influence of her brother Shuweb Rahman, a supporter of the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. They also argued that if Begum was allowed to attend classes wearing jilbab, other pupils would feel under pressure to adopt stricter forms of Islamic dress.

Begum, with her brother, issued a claim for judicial review of the school's decision not to allow her to wear the jilbab at school. The claim was made on the grounds that the school had interfered with her right to manifest her religion and her right to education (both rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights). Begum lost the case in the High Court, but later won on appeal to the Court of Appeal. The school appealed against this decision, and the case was heard by the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. The Department for Education and Skills was allowed to make submissions in the hearing in the House of Lords. The House of Lords ruled in favour of the school. Begum was represented in the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords by Cherie Blair(Booth) QC.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill stressed at the outset of his judgment that "this case concerns a particular pupil and a particular school in a particular place at a particular time. It must be resolved on facts which are now, for purposes of the appeal, agreed. The House is not, and could not be, invited to rule on whether Islamic dress, or any feature of Islamic dress, should or should not be permitted in the schools of this country". The Law Lords took the view that a person's right to hold a particular religious belief was absolute (i.e. could not be interfered with), but that a person's right to manifest a particular religious belief was qualified (i.e. it could be interfered with if there was a justification). 3 of the 5 Law Lords held that Begum's rights had not been interfered with (Lord Bingham, Lord Scott of Foscote and Lord Hoffmann), and 2 held that they had (Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead and Baroness Hale of Richmond). All 5 agreed, however, that in this particular case there were justifiable grounds for interference, one of the grounds being to protect the rights of other female students at the school who would not wish to be pressured into adopting a more extreme form of dress.

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