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Dressing Down By: Joshua Rozenberg
Telegraph.co.uk | Friday, June 18, 2004

A schoolgirl lost her High Court battle yesterday for the right to wear an Islamic gown in the classroom.

Shabina Begum, 15, of Luton, Beds, had argued that she was being denied her "right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs" at Denbigh High School, a 1,000-pupil comprehensive where almost 80 per cent of pupils are Muslim. Dismissing Shabina's application for judicial review, Mr. Justice Bennett said the school uniform policy had "a legitimate aim," the proper running of a multi-cultural, multi-faith secular school. Her human rights had not been infringed.

The dress policy applied to Muslim girl pupils "was, and continues to be, a reasoned, balanced, proportionate policy," the judge said.

Iqbal Javed, the school's solicitor, said the uniform was agreed by the governing body after wide consultation with the community and pupils. "The uniform is designed to be inclusive and takes into account the cultural and religious sensitivities of pupils at the school," he said. "Its appropriateness for Muslim students was recently reiterated by the local Council of Mosques.

"We now want to concentrate our efforts on reintegrating Shabina Begum back into school as quickly as possible."

Shabina has not attended the school since September 2002, when she was sent home for wearing a jilbab, an ankle-length gown covering all her body except her hands and face.

At a hearing last month, Shabina's solicitor-advocate Yvonne Spencer said the school's ban on her chosen Islamic clothing amounted to "constructive exclusion." It breached both domestic law and the European Convention on Human Rights.

But Simon Birks, for the school, said that while Denbigh had a high proportion of Muslim pupils, it seemed no others wished to wear the jilbab.

Muslim girls could wear trousers, skirts or a shalwar kameez, consisting of trousers and a tunic, to meet the requirements of the Islamic dress code. Changing the policy would be divisive, he added.

"There could be two classes of people - those who wore the jilbab and those who wore the shalwar kameez, with those wearing the jilbab regarded as 'better Muslims'," he said.

Originally, Shabina wore a shalwar kameez to school but in 2002 decided that it no longer complied with her beliefs.

In his ruling, the judge said: "There is a body of opinion within the Muslim faith that only the jilbab meets the requirements of its dress code, but there is also a body of opinion that the shalwar kameez does as well."

"The fact that she felt that she could not change her mind does not invalidate the fact that she had a choice," the judge said. Shabina was refused permission to appeal, but she can still apply direct to the Court of Appeal.

Outside court, Ms. Spencer said the decision was "disappointing."

"The family have asked me to express their views that they feel this decision doesn't help integrate Muslims within our society," she said.

She said Shabina has been out of education for two years, but there was "no question" of her returning to Denbigh.

"She is a bright exemplary pupil and it is important to the family that she is found a new school place," she said. "She is overwhelmed by this level of media attention."

The Muslim Council of Britain described the High Court decision as "very worrying and objectionable."

Abdul Bari, the council's deputy secretary general, said: "Those that believe and choose to wear the jilbab and consider it to be part of their faith requirement for modest attire should be respected."

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