This week 15-year-old Luton schoolgirl Shabina Begum made legal history by winning her court case allowing her to wear full religious dress as part of her school uniform. On the one hand this judgement can be seen as a progressive step towards protecting freedom of expression, and the young lady in question clearly showed remarkable determination and courage in taking on the education system. The debate is, however, rather more complex than a mere black-and-white issue of progressive, pluralist liberalism versus “Daily Mail” bigotry.
Firstly it is important to consider that hers was an action that was not representative of her own Muslim community – Yasin Rehman of the Luton Council of Mosques, which supported the school during the first court challenge, said: “There is no prescribed Islamic dress code. People of Islam, like other religions, say that you should dress modestly. How do you define that? This will create a lot of complications.” There is an important wider issue as to the desirability of uniforms, but that is a separate debate. The issue here is whether, given that uniforms are a part of the school system, it is acceptable to make exceptions for certain people. Discrimination is about treating someone differently on account of certain defining features, such as race, gender or religion. Throughout the time that Ms Begum was prohibited from wearing full-length Islamic dress, she was not being treated any differently to any other children at the school – the general idea is that deviation from the uniform is prohibited, and that is that. There was no discrimination happening. The position now, however, effectively discriminates[I] against[/I] people who are[I] not[/I] of a religious persuasion. In so doing it gives undue weight to religious expression as distinct from other forms of expression which do not happen to be religious, even though they may entail adherence to a strong value system. This gives undue privilege to the few major religious institutions which would be allowed to fall under the remit of this new exception; and this is unacceptable quite simply because it compromises the interests of the child themselves.
In order to fully appreciate this it is necessary to consider the role of the school within society as a whole. The decisions made by schools are reflective of the choices of democratically accountable Local Education Authorities and central government. As such it can be said that they are, albeit loosely, reflective of a common social purpose – in this case the education of a child in an environment that is not tainted by outside interests. The general idea is that, whatever goes on in a child’s life outside school, this ought not affect the manner in which they are treated, as an equal, within the classroom during school hours. At this point it is necessary to highlight the other interest groups whose have an agenda all of their own – namely the religious institution, and the pupil’s immediate family. Religious clerics of all denominations would like to see their cause advanced , and strongly religious families are all too happy to condition their children into adopting certain practices irrespective of whether the child is barely old enough to have made an objective choice. Theirs is a collective interest – which can be tentatively related to an agenda of indoctrination; it is an interest inherently in conflict with the common social purpose of teaching and learning in an objective context. Not only must schools prevent themselves from becoming a battleground for this sort of struggle, moreover they must be considered bastions against what amounts to the exploitation of vulnerable young people. It is the only public space where a young person is free from familial, religious or corporate pressures, and furthermore this freedom is key to providing an environment best suited to learning.
It is therefore clearly possible to oppose this ruling without having to resort to the “rivers-of-blood”-type rhetoric to which we have been subjected in recent days. It is my belief that, in any case, that this decision will soon be overturned. One point still riles, however, and it relates to the statement made by Begum after the trial, in which she ludicrously attributes the enforcement of very long-standing (school uniform) rules to the culture of post-9/11 Islamophobia in the Western world, a point which is both chronologically and contextually invalid. If we are to take anything at all from this comment, it is the implicit suggestion that, in response to post-9/11 Islamophobia, Muslims should be given special dispensation in order that they should feel less vilified. I certainly do not think that was what she meant, but either way the allusion was cynical and ill-considered.