There’s no human right to wear a jilbab
How did schoolgirl dress become a matter for the Law Lords?
‘This is a dispute over 11 inches of hem.’ (1)
So said a solicitor from the UK Children’s Legal Centre, describing 17-year-old Shabina Begum’s legal battle to wear a ‘jilbab’, a particular form of Islamic dress. The law lords’ final decision on the dispute is due this week.
In essence, this is little different to the everyday battles over uniform that occur in classrooms across the land. Teenage girls have always fought restrictions: they want their skirts that little bit shorter, or earrings that bit bigger; they want highlights, low-lights, bracelets, badges, makeup. Uniform rules are probed for their loopholes, as girls try to assert their autonomy and stand out from the crowd.
Begum’s case isn’t about her right to wear Muslim dress: the largely Muslim school, Denbigh High School in Luton, had a regulation headscarf and trouser outfit that was approved by Muslim scholars. Nor is it about community or family values: all sides emphasise that it was her own decision to wear the dress.
It’s not surprising that Begum wanted to push against authority. What is surprising is that her case ended up in the highest court in the land. A local dispute became a four-year legal battle; Begum initially lost the case, which was overturned in the Court of Appeal then passed to the House of Lords. The secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain described it as ‘a very important ruling on the issue of personal freedoms’ (2). Her lawyers – led by Cherie Booth, wife of Tony Blair – invoked the Human Rights Act, citing ‘her right to education and right to manifest her religious beliefs’.
How did schoolgirl dress become a big issue of religious freedom? Less because teenagers’ concerns have become more high-minded, and more because politics has sunk to the level of a schoolgirl spat.
School uniform has become a hot international issue. In America, the US government pitched in to defend a girl expelled for wearing a hijab. Meanwhile, the French government banned the hijab in schools, claiming that it posed a threat to republican values. Iraqi resistance fighters responded by kidnapping French journalists, demanding that the government revoke its stance. Abu Musab Al-Siri, one of the main al-Qaeda operatives in Europe, flagged up the subject of French schoolgirls’ headwear in one of his missives.
In Australia, a girl has been involved in a dispute over her decision to wear a ‘mantoo’ (a body-length religious tunic). Yasamin Alttahir’s arguments with her school principal were published verbatim in the Sydney Morning Herald. (‘[Alttahir] said she had some conversation with Ms Ford in the company of a teacher, Kathy Klados, last week where Ms Ford said: “You either follow the rules or you face suspension…. As your principal, I’m ordering you to remove that jacket.” She says she did, but put it on again when she returned to class’ etc.) (3)
Alttahir’s case was also more about personal statement rather than religious principle. She admitted that it wasn’t a requirement to wear the outfit, but claimed this was ‘irrelevant because I’ve chosen to wear this; it’s motivated by my religion, and my decision is what matters’. She even drew up a design for a shorter jacket to present to the principal, as they bantered back and forth about exactly what length would be acceptable.
Both sides are guilty of whipping up a melodrama. On the one hand, these schoolgirls are held up as icons of religious belief. The chief executive of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Amjad Mehboob, took Alttahir’s side, saying that her outfit was ‘the attire most recommended’ for Muslim women. One expert in education law said that Begum’s school had failed to appreciate ‘the depth of feeling the child had for her religion’. After the victory in the Court of Appeal, her lawyers said they hoped her case would give ‘hope and strength to other Muslim women’. Begum was apparently ‘manifesting her religious beliefs’, expressing her human rights, and preserving Islamic identity and values, no less. When school uniform becomes a matter for human rights, the term ‘rights’ means very little.
Others present the girls’ outfits as a major threat to social stability. The appeal judge who ruled in favour of Begum warned about other pupils ‘feeling intimidated or coerced by the presence of very strict Muslim garb’ (4). French president Jacques Chirac said that there was ‘something aggressive’ about the veil and that the state could not tolerate ‘ostentatious signs of religious proselytism’. Those who attack the veil often do so, not out of republican passion, but because that passion has waned. Having given up on trying to integrate Muslims into the French republican vision, the political elite instead merely tries to make them look French. Eleven inches of hem or a scrap of a headscarf are feared as symbols of strong belief only because secular society has lost its own beliefs.
It is certainly worrying that independent young women like Begum are choosing Islamic garb. Islamic dress is a sign of women’s subordination and exclusion – it implies that they are modest, virginal creatures who must take care when stepping out in public. As women have become more liberated, their clothing has become less restrictive: from corsets and petticoats to trousers, shorts and miniskirts; from full-length burqas to jilbabs to headscarves, then to bare heads. A progressive modern society should dissuade women from wearing headscarves, or any of their many variations.
Teachers are worried that if Begum wins her case it would ‘undermine the authority of schools’ (5). They have a point: the last thing anybody needs is every school uniform dispute invoking the Human Rights Act. Uniform should be decided by headteachers, in their day-to-day dealings with Muslim/non-Muslim pupils who inevitably want their skirts longer/shorter than the rest. Legal experts have no business pondering on whether Begum’s regulation trousers were too tight for her religious requirements.
Leave schoolgirl spats to the classroom, and matters of public principle to the courts.
(1) Teachers warn of crisis over Muslim girl’s uniform fight, Guardian, 19 March 2006
(2) Schoolgirl wins Muslim gown case, 2 March 2005
(3) Schoolgirl punished for Muslim dress, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May 2006
(4) School uniforms may need review, BBC News
(5) Teachers warn of crisis over Muslim girl’s uniform fight, Guardian, 19 March 2006
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