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British Court Rules Against Teen in Muslim Dress Dispute


Britain's highest court has upheld a school's uniform policy against a Muslim teenage girl who wanted to wear a traditional Islamic gown to school.

The decision by Britain's Law Lords allows schools to set a policy on uniforms that meets the needs of most students, but could upset the religious norms of some.

The case pitted Muslim student Shabina Begum, 17, against the Denbigh High School in the city of Luton, north of London.

In September, 2002, Begum went to school wearing a head-to-toe Islamic gown called a jilbab. The school sent her home to change because she was in violation of the uniform policy. Begum decided to leave Denbigh High and she enrolled at another school that permitted her to wear the jilbab.

Begum says she hopes other students will defend their religious rights and not be intimidated by the court's ruling.

"It is very upsetting, the fact that I have lost," she said. "I hope that other people out there that want to practice their religion whilst having their education do go further and do not compromise. And I hope it makes them feel that they can stand up for what they believe in and I hope that they are not scared."

Begum and her lawyers say they will consider appealing the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The general secretary of Britain's Association of School and College Leaders, John Dunford, has welcomed the Law Lord's ruling.

"The whole point, surely, of a school uniform is that it is uniform," he explained. "That it brings together all the pupils of the school wearing the same thing or having the same sort of dress code. If a school has to consult every single individual and make sure that they are all happy with it than I think we are in a rather difficult situation."

The Law Lords said the Luton school had made extensive efforts to design a uniform that, in the words of the ruling, "respected Muslim beliefs, but did so in an inclusive, unthreatening and uncompetitive way."

About three-quarters of the school's students are Muslim and the uniform policy, in the court's opinion, was respectful and acceptable to mainstream Muslims.