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Religious Diversity Challenges

Codes of dressing are often the centre of attention when it comes to accommodating religious minority claims
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When it comes to accommodating religious minorities in the public space, dress codes have often been at the centre of the discussion. The wearing of a headscarf as a form of religious attire, for example, has been at the centre of debates about dress codes that are acceptable in the workplace or in schools. Now let’s look at two cases, one in Britain and the other in Bulgaria, to see how minority claims for accommodating religious needs have been addressed. Begum, a pupil Denbigh High School in Luton, England, claimed that she was required by her Muslim faith to wear a jilbab, a full length gown, at school.
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The school viewed this as a violation of its uniform policy, and decided that Begum would not be allowed to attend school again until she wore the official uniform. In response, Begum sought a judicial review of the school’s decision, claiming a violation of two basic rights– one, the right to manifest one’s religion, and two, the right to an education, both of which are enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The school, in which near 80% of the pupils are Muslim, argued that it had already introduced Muslim-friendly uniform changes, such as a tunic and baggy trousers, as well as headscarves in school colours.
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Administered by a Muslim headmistress, the school further argued that the uniform changes had been decided in consultation with local mosques and parents. Begum lost the case, but later won at the Court of Appeal. The school appealed against this decision, and in 2006, the case was heard by the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, which eventually ruled in favour of the school. The position of the House of Lords was that it could not overrule the decision of any school in the country on whether Islamic dress or any feature of Islamic dress should or should not be allowed, as the head teachers, staff, and governors were best placed to make such a decision.
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Although the particular case of Begum has not been resolved to universal satisfaction, it has reaffirmed a pragmatic form of multicultural accommodation that considers claims when and where they arise. Now, let’s look at how a similar dispute was addressed in Bulgaria, where in July 2006, the Organisation for Islamic Development and Culture from the town of Smolyan filed a complaint before the Bulgarian Commission for Protection Against Discrimination against the Professional High School of Economics, which required students to wear uniforms in a country where few schools have such a policy.
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The plaintiff Organisation claimed that the compulsory wearing of school uniforms was especially aimed at preventing the wearing of clothes typical for the local Muslim population, thus acted against the Constitution and limited personal freedom and choice. The complaint focused specifically on the case of two Muslim girls who wanted to attend the school wearing headscarves and robes instead of school uniforms. The position of the school principal was that they should remove the headscarves, as they were violating the rules of the school. However, the two girls were not prevented from attending their classes. The CPD dismissed the allegation that the school was acting against the Constitution, and thereby violating a fundamental right of the two students.
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Instead, the commission ruled that the school’s decision allowing the girls to attend their classes wearing headscarves led to unequal treatment of the other students, who instead wore the prescribed uniforms. The case was solved by allowing the two girls to study for the final exams at home, with the help of teachers from the school. This incident received nationwide media coverage. The solution adopted was regarded as fair by the majority of actors involved, as it allowed the girls to retain their individual religious affiliation and to complete their secondary education. It was largely perceived as an example of tolerance and acceptance of diversity, because the compromise satisfied all parties.
When it comes to accommodating religious minorities in the public space, dressing codes have often been at the centre of the discussion, particularly so in schools. This short video presents two contested cases, one at Denbigh in the United Kingdom and the other at Smolyan in Bulgaria, and how they were solved.
These examples were taken from Triandafyllidou, A. (2012) Handbook on Tolerance and Cultural Diversity in Europe. For further information see also the ACCEPT-PLURALISM project.
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