A Muslim girl was yesterday given the right by a British court to wear full Islamic dress to school.
But the landmark decision is shaping as a flashpoint for growing unease about extremism and ethnic minorities.
Shabina Begum, 16, of Bangladeshi origin, made it clear her fight to wear the jilbab, which covers the whole body, was as much a political as a religious dispute.
She made a well-rehearsed speech outside the Court of Appeal in London and after the judges found in her favour, flanked by her brother, an Islamic political activist.
Ms Begum brought the discrimination case after her school, Denbigh High, in Luton near London, said she could not wear the jilbab.
The school has a large Muslim attendance.
The school’s principal, a Muslim, had already negotiated a uniform with the local council of mosques.
The principal emphasised the main reason she did not want the jilbab worn was to protect vulnerable pupils from being exploited by Muslim extremists.
!<)begum.jpg! At one stage, an extremist group had picketed the school gates and distributed leaflets to pupils exhorting Muslims not to send their children to secular schools. Girls would wear the skirt, trousers and jacket called shalwar hameez. Other religions demanding modesty, including Hindus and Sikhs, also wore the uniform. But Ms Begum claimed her right to the jalbib. After being barred, she joined another school but is now threatening to sue Denbigh High. She left her political position in no doubt as she left the courts: “As a young woman growing up in post 9/11 Britain, I have witnessed a great deal of bigotry from the media, politicians and legal officials. “This bigotry resulted from my choice to wear a piece of cloth. “It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this Islamic dress.” Education authorities fear the decision could lead to Muslim girls insisting on going to school in full purdah: full-length dress, scarf and veil hiding all but the eyes. Some leading Muslims welcomed the decision, others said it just helped the fundamentalists. Ms Begum was represented by Cherie Blair, the Prime Minister’s wife.
The English Court of Appeal decided the Denbigh High ban breached Ms Begum’s European human rights and her rights to practise her religion.
Ms Begum said: “Our belief in our faith is the one thing that makes sense in a world gone mad.”
“I sincerely hope that my small victory, to gain education, brings hope to millions of Muslim women around the world.”