So, Shabina has lost

Today the House of Lords, effectively the UK’s supreme court, allowed an appeal by a school which had excluded a Muslim female pupil, Shabina Begum, because she insisted on wearing an Arabic-style jilbab, which was against their uniform. The school actually has an alternative to the usual uniform which consists of a shalwar kameez and headscarf in school colours, but this was unacceptable to Shabina who believed the jilbab was mandatory and shalwar-kameez insufficient. It just so happens that Shabina and her brothers are part of Hizbut-Tahreer. (More: [1], [2], [3].)

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At the time of the appeal court ruling which upheld Shabina’s contention that it was her right to wear her jilbab and that the school had violated her rights by excluding her for wearing it, I welcomed it on a number of grounds - among them being that it was a victory against the tyranny of school uniforms. School uniforms are the norm in most British schools and the general justification is that they mask social divisions and prevent competition to sport the latest fashions while they should be concentrating on their studies. Actually, uniforms have been relaxed somewhat over the years, with such requirements as specific underwear, particularly for girls, being abolished, but the basic objections to them remain that they are uncomfortable, look ridiculous and, particularly in view of the fact that the people wearing them are growing rapidly, are expensive. It’s a fact that in the days of the 11+ exam, some children did not take it because their parents could not have afforded the grammar school uniform.

I recall having many arguments with teachers and prefects over uniform problems - usually because I refused to do my top button up because it was uncomfortable; the rule persists in most schools, however. Shirts and ties may be business dress, but a constricting collar and tie is suitable for a fully-grown man (although they are becoming less popular even among men) and much less so for a growing teenager. Some schools persist in requiring girls to wear nylons, which are notoriously unhealthy. Among other ridiculous (but fading) rules are shorts for boys, even in winter; there has also been a trend towards generic uniform items rather than specific clothes in unusual colours which can only be bought at one shop, which is of course a licence to print money for that shop. Then again, I’ve seen girls going to school in skirts as short as those one might wear to a nightclub, which has led at least two schools to actually ban skirts.

As anyone who has been in a school recently might be able to confirm, the notion that uniforms promote “unity” or mask social divisions is a myth. People can still fall out and exclude and victimise others in a school which has a uniform, as I found out on more than a few occasions at school. Youths can work out who is different by other means than what they wear: notably by how they speak and where they live. There is obviously a case for banishing fashion items from school, but uniform is not the only way of doing this. And the absurdity of schools being unable to get rid of pupils for serial bad behaviour, including violence against other pupils, but are quite able to exclude someone who turns up without the right clothing is obvious.

When it comes to promoting unity and levelling students’ perceptions of each other, arguably the sort of dress Shabina Begum was wearing is actually one of the best guarantors of this, because it makes girls’ figures - one of the biggest causes of anxiety among girls of that age - less obvious. If hair is covered, attempts to decorate it become pointless (and cutting it to less than an inch become unnecessary); wearers also testify that covered hair keeps clean for longer. A common answer to Shabina Begum’s case was that jilbabs are ugly and sack-like, and nobody choose to wear a sack when they can wear normal clothes; when this was discussed on the Jon Gaunt show last time this case was in the courts, one woman said, or wrote in, that she would not have minded being able to wear a “sack” when she was fifteen. (“Sacks” were in fact school uniform - for boys as well as girls - at some charity schools, as is still the case at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex. Perhaps that’s one answer.)

The case has of course already hit the opinion columns, and most of the comments support the judgement, even from people normally sympathetic such as Madeleine Bunting. Bunting welcomes it because the case “threatened to drive the proverbial coach and horses through the ability of schools to resolve this issue carefully in accordance with local communities”; it also raised the possibility of girls coming under pressure to wear niqab:

The nightmare that worried me was the scenario of teenage girls feeling under peer pressure to don the niqab - the face covering which leaves only the eyes exposed. Nor did that nightmare seem completely far fetched. We have already seen how an increasing number of Muslim girls have taken up the hijab, often in defiance of their bare headed mothers. I can see the hijab as an understandable reading of religious teaching and as a powerful source of identity; I also see it as well within the comprehension of Western traditions - for example, Christian nuns have traditionally worn veils. But the niqab is a particular cultural expression of Islam predominantly from the Arabian peninsula; its religious merit is hotly disputed. For example at a recent meeting I heard Tariq Ramadan categorically reject the niqab.

Actually, there are already teenage girls wearing niqab in this country; they simply do not go state schools, but to private Islamic ones, or are home-schooled; I suspect that this is particularly so in the Gujarati community. At my sixth-form college, there was one girl of Bangladeshi origin who wore niqab when she started (she later stopped). It did not cause any problems whatever; she had friends, mostly Asians but of different religions (there were only three or four girls, to my knowledge, that wore hijab at all). As with the hijab itself, niqab is often worn by women, and teenage girls, on their own initiative, sometimes in the face of family opposition. (The 2004 BBC documentary The Last White Kids actually showed two white girls, from a non-Muslim family, who showed an interest in Islam and acquired niqabs, although I suspect they did not wear them all the time.)

The case has also brought out quite a few people hostile to Islam itself: Robert Spencer, of course, celebrates “Some anti-dhimmitude in, of all places, Al-Britannia”; Melanie Phillips calls for the smelling salts as the Law Lords see what she calls sense for once and “have stamped all over the Court of Appeal for its truly appalling, supine, morally back-to-front judgment. A few with hard-set ideas about what they think Islam does not require have come out of the woodwork also. When it is pointed out that Islam in fact does require most of a woman’s body to be covered, they respond with mockery. The argument about protecting girls from pressure is worrying, because the same excuse is used to justify banning hijab altogether, and the insistence by the ignorant and arrogant that the headscarf is not required because it’s not in the Qur’an or some such nonsense (in this case they are wrong even on that - headscarves are in fact specifically mentioned in the Qur’an) gives Islamophobes and pseudo-feminists the ammunition they need to force girls out of scarves “in their own interests”.

Fareena Alam also points out that Shabina Begum’s contention that “the shalwar khameez is not Islamic because the kameez (tunic) only comes to the knees, with the shalwar (the slacks) showing the size of one’s legs” falls down because her own form of dress very often does just that. It’s possible to find jackets which protect one against the cold better than a jilbaab - I wear them all the time in cold weather like that we have recently experienced - but she herself chooses a close-fitting purple-checked jacket for her appearance at court - and on camera - today. Contrary to the impression given by a picture I saw in the Evening Standard of a girl in the permitted “Islamic” uniform, there actually is a baggy shalwar-kameez option at that school. Shalwar-Kameez, or variants thereon, is worn rather wider across the Islamic world than northern India: it’s found in west Africa also, and a robe over trousers is in fact worn in parts of the Arabian peninsula (perhaps most of it). The argument that women’s outer clothes should be in dull colours does not look too convincing, even if it’s correct (which it is), coming from someone wearing a purple headscarf and jacket.

This judgement is, of course, the only judgement that could have been reached, and I’m surprised the appeal court supported Shabina Begum last March. School uniforms are simply part of British school tradition, and it’s unthinkable that the House of Lords would deliver a judgement which would in effect outlaw them - much as outlawing them might appeal to some people. Shabina Begum and her supporters need not think that the European Courts, possibly presided over by judges from countries far more hostile to their Muslim minorities than this country, would support them either (they did not, for example, support a Turkish female university student’s right to an education).

The biggest failure here is that of our community: we did not provide this sister with the education she needed when her parents were unable to provide it for her. I don’t want to get into a MPACUK-style diatribe about “useless imams”, but this sister should have been able to attend an Islamic school, on a scholarship if necessary. We have plenty of madrassas of different schools of thought, though noticeably fewer for girls; do we have scholarships at all? Muslims are all too willing to erect mosques which are also monuments to various Gulf rulers; surely the wealth of the Ummah should be spent on making sure Muslim youth receive an Islamic education and are not required to make distressing compromises over such matters as dress at a time when they are most vulnerable - and perhaps when they are first becoming interested in Islam.

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