Top UK Court Tells Muslim Schoolgirl Her Human Rights Weren't Violated

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

London ( - Dismissing claims that her human rights had been violated, Britain's highest court has ruled against a British teenager who wanted to wear an all-encompassing Muslim dress to school.

Deciding unanimously, the British Law Lords said that a high school in Luton, north of London, acted properly when it barred the now 17-year-old Shabina Begum from attending dressed in the long, coat-like "jilbab."

Denbigh High School first refused to admit Begum in September 2002, when she showed up wearing the outfit she claimed her religion required her to wear.

Her case came to the attention of a team of human rights lawyers -- including Cherie Booth, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair -- and she won an appeal against the school a year ago.

But the Law Lords ruled Wednesday that the school was within its rights to maintain its own dress code, one which they commended as a thoughtful balance between the needs of students and the community.

According to court documents, 79 percent of students at the school are Muslim, mostly the children of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants.

Following consultations in 1993 with parents and local imams, the school principal allowed girls to wear headscarves as well as an outfit called the "shalwar kameeze" -- a sleeveless, smock-like dress over loose trousers.

The documents said Denbigh High School imposed one form of Islam dress because it wanted to decrease ethnic tensions and stop possible competition between students about who was the "better Muslim."

Nonetheless, Begum claimed that her religion dictated she wear the jilbab, which covers everything but her face and hands.

In spite of the ruling, Begum said afterwards that she had no regrets about her actions.

"I'm upset about the judgment," she said. "But I'm glad that I can move on with my life now and that I made a stand for what I believe in."

She said that she didn't understand why she had to lose two years of life battling the school because of "six inches of skirt" and that she hadn't decided yet if she wanted to take the matter on to the European Court of Human Rights.

One of the judges, Lord Hoffmann, said the girl could have moved to a school where she was allowed to wear a jilbab or to a female-only school where her religion did not require her to wear one.

"Instead, she and her brother decided that it was the school's problem," he wrote. "They sought a confrontation and claimed that she had a right to attend the school of her own choosing in the clothes she chose to wear."

The daughter of now-deceased Bangladeshi parents, Begum is currently being raised by an older brother, whom reports in the British press alleged had put her up to the case.

She denied this strongly on Wednesday, however.

"I do have a mind of my own," she said. "I do choose what I want to wear."

On Wednesday, Iqbal Javed -- the school's lawyer -- said he was "pleased but not surprised" that the court had ruled in its favor.

Unlike in other European countries, many state-funded schools in the United Kingdom have religious affiliations.

Despite the recent controversy in France over the decision to ban all religious clothing from schools, Tahir Alam, education spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the situation in the two countries was not really similar.

He said he knew of dozens of state schools in Britain that allowed the jilbab and that some sort of compromise should have been worked out long ago.

"It's not really an issue in many schools," he said. "It's a disappointment that it had to go on to the high court."

A sura in the Koran reads in one translation: "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their [jalabib] over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested."

Jalabib is plural for jilbab.

Census figures for 2001 indicated that there were some 1.6 million Muslims in Britain, whose total population is around 60 million.

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