The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

10:08am on Friday, 4th March, 2005:

Human Wrongs


As an atheist, I often despair of the effects of religion. Just one of many examples of this is the law's attitude to the subject. Although we've left behind the days when people could successfully claim in court that something they'd done actually occurred as a result of supernatural intervention, nevertheless the law does go out of its way to protect the right of people to believe things that aren't true. I don't actually mind if people believe things that aren't true — I'm sure I believe plenty of such things myself. However, I don't ask the right to have such beliefs held untouchable; I just want the right to be able to defend them (and, if in the course of so defending them I realise they're untrue, to change them).

The earnest desire of the law to take all measures necessary to protect freedom of religious expression tripped up this week. A Moslem girl (or Muslim if you prefer the more modern spelling) lost two years of schooling because her jilbab was against school uniform. She took legal action, and yesterday the Court of Appeal ruled in her favour. There's some debate as to what constitutes a jilbab, but in her case it means a head-to-toe long-sleeved gown with fetching headscarf. The court's decision was that it breached her human rights for her school not to allow her to wear this kind of outfit in class. On the face of it, to a liberal-minded non-Moslem, OK, maybe it is wrong of a school to force a child to dress in a way that offends their deeply-held religious beliefs. After all, Sikhs are allowed to carry daggers to classes.

It's not that simple, though. In an attempt to be culturally sensitive, the Court of Appeal has actually been culturally insensitive. The school that the child in question attends (well, she'll attend it now) has a Moslem headmistress and some 80% of the pupils are Moslem. Like most other schools in the UK, they have a school uniform. Girls can wear a salwar kameez and headscarf in school colours. Parents and children alike are in favour of this for the same reason everyone else is in favour of school uniform: if children dress the same way, there's no hierarchy. Now, however, there will be a "hierarchy of piety", with children feeling they have to wear the full get-up or be deemed as somehow "less Moslem" than their peers. Unsurprisingly, they're not happy about this. Maybe they should all turn up to school in veils one day, just so the girl in question looks like she's the one who's less Moslem...

We were treated to a victory speech by the girl (whose name is Shabina Begum, by the way) claiming that the banning of her jilbab 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'". No way! That was effectively a Moslem school making a Moslem decision. My wife suggested to me that that Begum was being a typical teenager rebelling against the world, but I'm not convinced. To me, this kind of language makes it look more like she's having her strings pulled. Now there's pressure on all the Moslem girls at that school to conform to a more backward-looking interpretation of Islam than they would wish. Good going, Court of Appeals...

Another quote: "It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this attire". Firstly, it can't be both "amazing" and "so-called". Secondly, it's amazing that in a modern Western society people should want to wear this attire. What next? Fundamental Christian children demanding the right to wear fig leaves to class?

From what I gather, the Court of Appeal referred to human rights law in making its decision. This law is Europe-wide. How come our judges decide it means a girl must be allowed to wear a jilbab but French judges haven't decided it means girls must be allowed to wear a headscarf? What happened to consistency?


OK, rant over.

There's a woman in Arizona whose name is Jill Babb.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).