A girl was unlawfully excluded from school for wearing a traditional Muslim gown, Appeal Court judges have ruled.
Lord Justice Brooke said Denbigh High School in Luton, Beds, denied Shabina Begum, 16 – now at another school – the right to manifest her religion.
He called for more guidance for schools on complying with the Human Rights Act.
Miss Begum called the ruling a victory for Muslims who wanted to “preserve their identity and values”. The school said it had lost on a technicality.
Miss Begum, whose parents are both dead, had worn a regulation shalwar kameez (trousers and tunic) until September 2002 when she informed the school authorities she intended to wear a full-length gown called a jilbab.
Speaking outside the Court of Appeal Miss Begum, who now attends a school where the jilbab is allowed, said Denbigh High School’s action could not be viewed merely as a local decision taken in isolation.
“Rather it was a consequence of an atmosphere that has been created in Western societies post 9/11, an atmosphere in which Islam has been made a target for vilification in the name of the ‘war on terror’,” she said.
“It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this attire.”
‘Onus on school’
In their ruling the Appeal Court judges said the school had a right to set a school uniform policy but nobody had considered Miss Begum had a right recognised by English law.
The onus lay on the school to justify any interference with that right, the judges ruled.
Lord Justice Brooke said: “Instead, it started from the premise that its uniform policy was there to be obeyed: if the claimant did not like it, she could go to a different school.”
Although Miss Begum had won her case, she no longer sought an order from the court that the school took her back and no longer sought any damages, he added.
A spokesman for Denbigh High School, where 79% of pupils are Muslims, defended its uniform policy which he said took into account cultural and religious sensitivities.
“The policy was agreed by the governing body following wide consultation with the DFES, pupils, parents, schools and leading Muslim organisations.”
The case had been lost due to a “small, technical breach” of the Human Rights Act, the spokesman added.
“The judges accepted that the school is entitled to have a uniform policy and could see nothing wrong with it,” he said.
A spokesperson for Luton borough council said they would be developing guidance on school uniform and advising Luton schools’ governing bodies to review their uniform policy to take account of religious and cultural needs.
The ruling, which has major implications for multi-faith schools across the country, has been welcomed by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) as a “common-sense approach”.
MCB Secretary-General Iqbal Sacranie said: “This is a very important ruling on the issue of personal freedoms. The British Muslim community is a diverse community in terms of the interpretation and understanding of their faith and its practice.
“Within this broad spectrum 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.”