UK: Britain remains undecided on veils in schools

The Guardian
"Leaving it up to schools to 'behave reasonably' does not really help. The concept lacks precision. What seems reasonable to one individual or group seems unreasonable to another."
"Mehdia, a British Moroccan living in London says: "Wearing the hijab - the Islamic headscarf - has been a source of pride for me; it's something very beautiful." But the 20-year-old found it a struggle to convey this to the primary and secondary schools she attended in this country. "Does this comply with our uniform rules?" they seemed to silently ask.
Ministers attempted to help schools answer that question late last week with the release of new guidance on school uniform. Tagged on to the end was advice on the wearing of religious symbols in class.

Schools should "act reasonably in accommodating religious requirements," it stated. But, it went on: "Freedom to manifest a religion or belief does not mean that an individual has the right to manifest their religion or belief at any time, in any place, or in any particular manner. We are clear that the needs of safety, security and effective teaching and learning must always be paramount - and these may supersede individual requests under the terms of the Human Rights Act."

All clear then: religious symbols are fine in school as long as teaching, safety and security are not impaired? Not quite.

Educationalists say the new guidelines - and government policy in the past on this matter - are at best ambiguous, and at worst actually increase tensions between religious groups in the classroom.

One of the most severe critics is Dr Dianne Gereluk, a senior lecturer in education at Roehampton University. Next spring, Gereluk is publishing a book, Symbolic Clothing in Schools, which is a damning critique of the way England has tackled the wearing of religious symbols in schools.

As part of her research, she compared advice given to schools by the British, Canadian, US and French governments. She also interviewed schoolchildren and headteachers. She concludes that:

* The British government sends "mixed messages" on whether schools should be allowing their pupils to wear religious symbols and dress.

* England is unfairly prejudiced against pupils wearing Muslim or secular symbols, such as Make Poverty History bands, and more lenient towards those who wear Christian and Jewish symbols.

* Of schools in France, Canada, the US and England, ours are the most inconsistent in the stances they take on this matter.

Gereluk also accuses the government of cowardice. "They take an 'arms removed' approach from the heated debate, letting schools muddle through their own controversies, without much backing from the state," she says. "It is difficult to see just how much backbone the government has, and is willing to provide, when schools take a position on symbolic clothing."

Professor Mark Halstead, head of the department for community and international education at the University of Huddersfield, agrees. "Leaving it up to schools to 'behave reasonably' does not really help. The concept lacks precision. What seems reasonable to one individual or group seems unreasonable to another."

So what are these "mixed messages"? "On the one hand schools are told to encourage diversity and on the other to foster 'Britishness'," says Gereluk. "This suggests the parameters of tolerance are not as broad as is claimed. Then there are the comments made by the then leader of the House of Commons and now the lord chancellor, Jack Straw, who suggested Muslim women lift the veil to break down barriers between communities."

Straw said last year that the veil was a "visible statement of separation and of difference" and that he asks women visiting his surgery to think about removing it.

Gereluk also argues that the decision to allow faith groups to run schools suggests the UK fosters pluralism. But, she suggests, this may be an illusion, pointing to recent court judgments in which Muslim pupils and a teaching assistant were told they could not wear religious dress in class.

Last year, Shabina Begum, a 15-year-old Muslim, fought to wear a jilbab - a long loose gown - in class and lost. Earlier this year, a 12-year-old, who cannot be named, fought a Buckinghamshire girls' school for the right to wear a full-face veil and, again, failed. This year, teaching assistant Aishah Azmi lost her appeal against an employment tribunal, which ruled that the school's refusal to allow her to wear a veil was not discrimination.

Without clear guidelines from the government, different schools take different stances on the wearing of religious dress and symbols. Begum's school forbade the jilbab, but two schools nearby allowed it. "The lack of clear guidelines exacerbates tensions between religious groups," says Gereluk.

But can the government avoid sending mixed messages to schools about the wearing of religious symbols and dress? Surely each school has a unique set of circumstances. Aren't the headteacher and the community in which a school is based best placed to rule whether a jilbab or a niqab can be allowed?

"It's all very well saying it depends on the context and the particular circumstances," says Gereluk. "But just letting schools deal with this on their own places a heavy and unfair burden on them. Simply stating that schools need to be 'sensitive' does not help them much. Shouldn't there be more consistency in practice?"

What about the allegation that England is unfairly prejudiced against pupils wearing Muslim or secular symbols?

"Often exemptions are made to allow pupils to wear small crucifixes or stars of David," she says. "There is an underlying privilege with certain exemptions made to certain religious symbols and a tougher stance given to others. The exemptions appear to privilege the Christian-Judeo faiths in particular. This same leniency does not seem to apply to those who hold similar strong beliefs that do not fit the traditional mould."

Gereluk points to the case this year of Lydia Playfoot, a 16-year-old who went to the high court to try to overturn her school's ruling not to allow her to wear a purity ring to school. She said it was an expression of her Christian faith, but lost the case. "If the ring was truly a significant symbol of her chastity, why should religious jewellery be exempt and the purity ring banned?" asks Gereluk.

"Muslims often have to challenge the status quo because of the Christian-Judeo bias in schools. This puts those already in the minority at a huge disadvantage."

Halstead says much of the discussion about symbolic clothing involves implicit criticism of Islamic beliefs and practices. "It is often implied that girls and women are forced to wear the veil or other clothing that envelops the body by their fathers, male relatives or by the old men at the mosque. My own research suggests that largely this is not the case. Muslim girls normally make an autonomous decision to wear the hijab, often against the advice of their parents, who may be concerned about how this will affect their chances in the employment market."

Staffrooms and politicians across the world are discussing whether pupils should be allowed to wear religious symbols and dress in school. But the topic is particularly hot in France, Holland, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Australia, the US and Canada, says Gereluk.

Gereluk analysed and compared the policies of France, Canada, the US and England. She concluded that Britain's policies were the most inconsistent of the four.

She found France at one end of the spectrum. Legislation there, passed in 2004, bans all religious dress and symbols in schools under the justification of preserving its secular republican traditions. It is the only country so far to have put in place a legal ban on overt signs of religious faith in schools.

At the other end is Canada, which since 1982 has held a policy of "reasonable accommodation" based on the premise that the state has a duty to adjust and make alternative arrangements to groups in order to reduce discrimination.

The US has had more legal battles on political and social clothing than on religious clothing. It has left it to the discretion of school authorities to ban symbolic clothing where they see fit.

"England is totally unclear where it stands and is sending out far more mixed messages," says Gereluk.

Jim Knight, minister for schools and learners, says he believes the government has been clear enough: "We have been clear in our guidance that schools should seek to accommodate different religious groups and consult with the community. But they do need to make sure that safety, teaching and learning come first. If clothing is used to define difference and create cliques rather than to bind a school together and promote discipline, then you have a problem. The test for me is whether the uniform helps to promote the school's ethos of tolerance, respect and discipline."

Gereluk disagrees. "The test should be does the clothing jeopardise the safety and health of the pupils, is it oppressive to the pupil wearing it or their classmates, is it essential to a pupil's identity and does it inhibit the educational aims of the school?

"Rip up the guidelines and start again," she advises."

By: Jessica Shepherd

9 October 2007