A good ruling on the Sikh kara

Last Tuesday a British court upheld the right of a Sikh girl living in south Wales to wear the kara, or Sikh bangle, to school. Her school, Aberdare Girls’, bars all religious symbols and all jewellery other than watches and simple ear studs. Because she insisted on wearing the bangle, which is one of the mandatory five “K” symbols of the Sikh religion, the school segregated her, preventing her from going to the toilet without supervision, or to the playground or canteen at all, and making her sit on her own in a room with a teaching assistant. (More: Sunny Hundal, also at Pickled Politics.)

This is not by any means the first time a court has been asked to intervene in a dispute between a school pupil, or worker, and a school over matters of religious dress; however, the three best known recent challengers have lost. They are Lydia Playfoot, who insisted on her right to wear a silver “chastity ring” on her finger, Aishah Azmi, a teacher who refused to remove her veil in the classroom, and Shabina Begum, who insisted on wearing a long robe to school rather than the official so-called hijab uniform. Of these, Playfoot’s case is the most specious; the “silver ring thing” is a movement linked to a commercial enterprise, and Playfoot’s father and his wife are part of team which run the operation in the UK; the wife is its secretary.

However, it is that case which bears the most superficial similarity to the recent “kara” case, but the difference is that one involves an item that was central to the religion, and was about genuine human rights, while the other was about an independent movement, whose ring nobody has said has to be worn in the religion it is associated with, and may have been a publicity stunt for that movement and its commercial wing. Of course, in many schools in the USA, where the movement originated, there are no uniforms and girls would have been able to wear it without any hindrance.

The usual response to such cases is to protest that if one person is allowed an exception to the rule, everyone will want one, or others will come under pressure to do the same, if the exception is related to religious dress. Of course, the kara is no real imposition, but there are those who find the thought of having to wear hijab so ghastly that they would ban a girl from school for wearing it rather than entertain that possibility for other girls. The question should be asked whether education is worth more or less than the right not to wear a headscarf; I would argue that if it is worth less, it is not worth much. Another common argument is that religious symbols encourage division, but if the school has pupils of visible ethnic minorities, there is bound to be division anyway. School uniforms, of course, are made out to mask social divisions, but fail miserably when there is more than one school in any district, particularly when the two schools are associated with different classes. In my experience, they are often uncomfortable, look ridiculous, and leave plenty of room for the wearers to identify each other’s differences or weak spots.

Then there is the line that it will identify members of those religious communities who are pious and those who are not, encouraging the first to pick on the second. In fact, people can already tell such things from talking to people about their general habits; they might already knows who comes to the mosque or temple from before they met at school. Finally, one even hears from time to time the line that children are not religious, and that they should be referred to as children of Muslims or Christians rather than Muslim or Christian children. This is simply part of an ideology they have invented; it is particularly baseless for those of secondary school age.

This case was a very modest challenge to extreme response by a school to an unobtrusive religious item. Frankly, I welcome any ruling which strikes against the tyranny of school uniforms, as I said at the time of the Shabina Begum case. While I was surprised at the appeal court ruling in her favour and less so at the final House of Lords ruling against her, I was very much disappointed by it, not only because Shabina Begum’s form of dress in fact fulfilled the Islamic dress requirements for women far better than the school’s tight shalwar-kameez alternative did, but because an educational establishment had “defended its right” not to do its job, to teach someone who actually wanted to be taught, and won. The British school system has been allowed to behave as if its institutions, particularly the better-performing ones (which, at secondary level, usually mean those in affluent areas with the most middle-class kids), were philanthropic institutions funded by generous grandees and staffed by volunteers, when they are in fact state institutions funded by public money and staffed by local council functionaries, and they should not have the right to pick and choose who they teach as long as they do not stand in the way of others’ learning or well-being.

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