UK: Muslim manifesto calls for headscarves in state schools

Schools will be urged today to allow Muslim girls to wear headscarves for all lessons to promote better integration of Muslim pupils into the state sector.

The call comes in a detailed 72-page document compiled by the Muslim Council of Britain in an attempt to bridge the cultural gap with other pupils in state schools.

The document, to be launched this evening, covers topics from dress codes to halal meat and collective worship. It says schools should allow girls to wear the hijab – headscarf – and full-length skirts leaving only their hands and face uncovered. However, it stops short of endorsing the niqab, which covers the whole face – while reminding schools that Department for Education advice says no pupil should be disciplined for wearing clothes that adhere to a cultural or religious dress code. Pupils growing a beard should also be respected.

It also calls on all schools to consider lessons in Islamic civilisation’s contribution to the history of Europe to help pupils feel their culture is valued.

The document is the most comprehensive attempt by the Muslim community to promote greater understanding of their pupils. It says there are 400,000 Muslim pupils – with 96 per centin the state sector. However, it warns many are underachieving, which, it says, “is surprising because of the value that Islam places on education”. One reason could be that Muslims “are experiencing Islamophobia”.

“Many schools have responded positively to issues related to cultural diversity and to meeting the needs of Muslim pupils,” the document says. “However, others have not been responsive to legitimate and reasonable requests … such as collective worship, communal changing, swimming, halal meat and sex education. Unfortunately, Muslim pupils are sometimes placed in situations where they feel pressured into acting contrary to their beliefs and conscience, and also experience Islamophobic sentiments and comments.”

The call will be debated as part of the review of history teaching for 11 to 14-year-olds being undertaken by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It is understood there was a call for Islamic history to become a compulsory part of history lessons, but that was rejected. The review is out for consultation.

The document says all kitchen staff should be trained to prepare halal meals. On prayers, it says only two of the five periods of daily prayer fall during the school day – but arrangements should be made for an area where Muslim pupils can pray and conduct congregational prayers.

It says schools should help Muslim pupils avoid excessive exercise during Ramadan – when they will be fasting. They should also be “sensitive” to the need for separate changing rooms – and there should be no communal showering.

On dance lessons, it warns some styles may be seen as “sexually explicit” and most parents may find them objectionable. It argues against performances in front of mixed gender audiences for older pupils.

The document will be welcomed tonight by Professor Tim Brighouse, a former senior government adviser who is now Commissioner for London Schools.

But headteachers’ leaders warned last night of a “backlash”. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Some of this sounds un-doable… Schools are trying to create societies within their walls which are tolerant and celebratory. I just worry that the list of demands – if it is a list of demands – is too much, that it will simply create a backlash.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday February 21, 2007.
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