Muslim pupil loses veil challenge

A 12-year-old Muslim girl today lost her high court challenge to her school’s ban on wearing the niqab full-face veil.

Lawyers for the girl and her father had argued that the ban was “irrational” and a breach of her human rights, but Mr Justice Silber rejected their plea for a judicial review.

The girl’s lawyers said after the judgment that she and her family were “bitterly disappointed” and were considering an appeal. Although the judge refused the girl permission to appeal, her lawyers can still apply to the court of appeal for leave.

The judge was told at a recent hearing that the girl’s three elder sisters all attended the same school – two of them under the present headteacher – and all wore the niqab.

The girl, referred to as X – she is protected by an anonymity order, as is her Buckinghamshire school – argued that the ban thwarted her “legitimate expectation” that she would be allowed to wear the niqab and breached her right to freedom of “thought, conscience and religion” under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The school told X last September, when she started wearing the niqab on reaching puberty, that it was not acceptable because teachers believed it would make communication and learning difficult.

The veil covers all of the face except the eyes.

About 120 of the school’s 1,300-plus pupils are Muslims, and up to 60 of them wear the hijab headscarf.

It is thought that X is the only pupil demanding the right to wear the full-face veil when being taught by male teachers or when in the presence of other male staff.

The girl is currently receiving tuition at home and has been offered a place at a different, mixed school that permits the niqab, but she wants to go back to her original school.

Mr Justice Silber urged X’s parents to reconsider the offer of the alternative school. Free transport to and from that school would be provided. If they continued to refuse the offer, X would face a further period away from school, he said. She had already been away for four and half months and this was causing her some distress.

The school, which contested the case, won the backing of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, which stresses that not all Muslims agree with the wearing of the niqab.

The girl’s solicitor, Shah Qureshi, said after the ruling: “This is a case about religious tolerance and the freedom to practice your religion as long as it does not interfere with others.

“This freedom is enshrined within Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. My client and her family are not the extremists that they have been portrayed as by some elements of the press.

“All she wants is to be able to practice her deeply held beliefs whilst getting on with her daily life. She is not impinging on the rights of others and has always been willing to meet with the school to reach a resolution.”

He added: “My client and her family are deeply disappointed with the decision.

“We believe there are a number of errors in the decision that have led to Mr Justice Silber reaching the wrong conclusions. It is surprising that he decided that the school had not infringed my client’s freedom to manifest her religion given the fact that she entered the school on the understanding that the wearing of the veil was allowed when being taught by male teachers.”

The school was awarded costs against the girl’s parents, who had privately funded her case.

The headteacher of the school said: “The school welcomes the judgment of the high court, supporting the school’s decision not to allow pupils to wear the niqab. The decision to defend this action was taken after careful consideration on the part of the senior management team and the governors. It was not taken lightly.

“We want to focus now on supporting our student. We hope that she will return to school and resume her education as part of our community.

“The school has a long tradition of serving its local community. It is proud to play its part in community cohesion and welcomes pupils from all faiths and religions with a view to helping them achieve their potential in a supportive learning environment. This is a school where girls flourish, learning to become active and equal citizens.”

The schools minister, Andrew Adonis, welcomed the ruling, adding that the court’s decision would be taken into account in the government’s new uniform guidance, due out shortly.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday February 22, 2007.
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