Muslim father gets legal aid to fight school over veil ban
A school may be forced to allow a 12-year-old Muslim to wear a full-face veil because its local council is refusing to fund a court battle against the child's fundamentalist father.
The school told the girl it was not acceptable for her to wear the niqab – which covers all of her face except her eyes – because teachers believe it will make communication and learning difficult.
Call to tackle 'segregated' schools But the child's Pakistan-born father is seeking a judicial review of the decision in the High Court in London. He argues that the ban amounts to an infringement of his daughter's human rights and is understood to be receiving legal aid for his case.
A court order bans identification of the girl, her father and the Buckinghamshire school involved. Its governors are meeting tonight and may vote for a climbdown because of the council's refusal to support them, fearing costs for contesting the action could climb to £500,000.
Last year the Law Lords ruled that a Luton school was justified in barring Muslim schoolgirl Shabina Begum from wearing a jilbab, a long loose gown, to classes – but it took a long and expensive legal fight. Even though court costs are currently low, neighbouring Buckinghamshire County Council fears the bill could rocket if its case drags on.
Many of the school’s 1,000-plus pupils are Muslim girls, and they are allowed to wear headscarves. The girl is the only pupil demanding the right to wear the full-face veil. Her three elder sisters, who attended in the past, were allowed to wear the niqab when a different head was in charge.
A source at the Conservative-led council said: "With 250 other schools in the area and severe cuts to the social care budget, it would be inappropriate to spend taxpayers' money on this.
"The council backs the right of the head to enforce her uniform policy, but is not commenting about its stand on the veil." The girl is understood to have come to school with her face covered in September and the head and governors tried to reach a compromise with her parents to no avail.
She has not been excluded, but has been out of school since early October. A source close to the school said: "The school feels it would be inappropriate to allow the veil because it could bring difficulties interacting with the girl, especially in lessons like drama.
"The teachers are also concerned they would not be able to see whether or not she has understood something if they cannot see her face." Local Islamic community leader Mohammed Khaliel said: "Muslims should be able to practise whatever they want within the constraints of the law – but within the large Muslim community in the town, nearly 20,000 people, there is surprise about this.
"The father involved is well-respected, and is a good Muslim, but his is the only family that wants their daughter to wear this veil to school. "I do know, however, that he believes it is right for his children. The girl wants to wear it too, she is not being forced."
Conservative MP Paul Goodman said: "I believe that the Department for Education and Buckinghamshire County Council should support the school in principle, and should work together to help fund this court case.
"I've written to the Secretary of State seeking an urgent meeting." The Muslim Council of Britain said the school's policy of allowing the 'hijab’ headscarf is "quite sufficient to meet Islamic requirements".