A British girl lost a legal battle on Wednesday to be allowed to wear full Islamic dress in school in a case which has been likened to the row in France over the wearing of Muslim headscarves.
Shabina Begum, now 17, was sent home from school in September 2002 and ordered to change her clothes after she turned up wearing a jilbab, a long gown which covers the whole body except for the hands and face.
She successfully appealed against the school’s decision in March 2005 when the Appeal Court ruled her human rights had been breached by the ban.
Her case was championed by Cherie Booth, wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a prominent human rights lawyer.
But Begum’s school, Denbigh High in Luton, north of London, itself appealed against last year’s decision and on Wednesday was backed by Britain’s highest court, the House of Lords.
The Lords said Begum’s family knew what the school’s uniform policy was when they sent her there and should have enrolled her at a different school if they objected to it.
Begum said she was disappointed by the verdict but proud to have taken issue with a ban which she and others among Britain’s 1.6-million-strong Muslim population regarded as a fundamental breach of their rights.
“Obviously I am saddened and upset at the result but I am glad that I can now move on, having made a stand to speak out against this,” said Begum, who was in the House of Lords to hear the decision. She has since left the school.
Denbigh High said it was pleased with the verdict while Luton Council, which had backed the school, described it as “excellent news”.
“We are pleased that Denbigh High has finally been vindicated,” the council said in a statement. “The school has always adopted an inclusive uniform policy that satisfies the religious needs and cultural backgrounds of its pupils.”
Muslim groups were dismayed by the ruling.
“On a matter of principle we are disappointed,” said Tahir Alam, education spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, the country’s largest Muslim lobby group.
“There are lots of schools across the country which allow the jilbab and this issue should have been resolved at a local level. It’s unfortunate that it’s gone through the courts.”
The case, which has rumbled on for 3-1/2 years, has drawn comparisons with the furore in France triggered by a ban on Muslim headscarves in state schools.
France banned all conspicuous religious clothing, including headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.
The move sparked angry protests across the Islamic world.