Full-face veil ’caused pupil mix-up’

    A new headteacher who noted that one of her sixth form girls was wearing a Muslim full-face veil did not realise there were two of them – because she did not see them together. In evidence to the High Court, the headteacher said that, although she considered the niqab veil was a breach of uniform policy, she decided that “the girl” should be allowed to continue wearing it because the previous head had permitted it. “I did not, in fact, realise that there was a second girl (her sister), also in the sixth form, who also dressed in an identical, full jilbab (long dress) and niqab because I never saw them together,” she said. The girls eventually left the Buckinghamshire school and it was not until their younger sister became a pupil and also started wearing the veil that the updated uniform policy was enforced. She and her parents were told the niqab was not acceptable. That decision is now under challenge in court. Mr Justice Silber is being asked by the 12-year-old and her father to rule the ban on her wearing the niqab was irrational, in the light of the way her sisters’ wishes had been accommodated, and in breach of her human right to freedom of “thought, conscience and religion”. For legal reasons, neither the girl, referred to as X, nor the school, a top girls’ grammar, nor its headteacher can be identified. The niqab veil covers all of the face except the eyes. About 120 of the school’s 1,300-plus pupils are Muslims, and up to 60 of them wear the hijab headscarf. X is the only pupil demanding the right to wear the full-face veil when men are likely to be present. The girl is attending a different school which permits the niqab, but she wants to go back to the grammar. The headteacher, who took over at the school in September 2002, stated: “I believe that if the niqab becomes an accepted part of school uniform attire there may well be pressure brought to bear on other Muslim girls to wear one, either from the children’s families or from their friends at school.” For a girl to conceal her face was contrary to the ethos of the school. “As a girls’ school for over 100 years, we are very conscious of our duty to educate girls to regard themselves as equals to men and to gain the self-confidence to live and work in British and international society on the same level as men,” she said. She pointed out that being able to see facial expressions was a key component of effective classroom interaction; for instance, was a pupil paying attention or distressed or enthusiastic? An assessment made of X in the light of her shy, quiet and reserved manner emphasised the need for her to be able to communicate freely with her teachers and peers. The headteacher also spoke of her duty to ensure the safety of her pupils. “If a stranger is on site, then it is simple to approach and ask them (about) their business. “However, if pupils wore the niqab, then identifying those on site becomes difficult and it would not be beyond the realms of possibility for an unwelcome person wishing to move incognito to wear a niqab herself. “Of course it would be very difficult for a male teacher to challenge somebody wearing a niqab as the very reason it is being worn is to avoid being seen by the opposite sex.” The headteacher stressed that X had not been excluded from the school, which wanted her to return. She had been kept from school either at her own request or on instruction of her parents. An alternative school – Burnham Grammar, 12 miles from the girl’s home, where the niqab was allowed – was able to offer her a place. Transport would be provided. The girl’s lawyers argue that the niqab is simply an addition to school uniform – like a skullcap or turban – and that, in an emergency, a girl would simply remove it and show her face. The judge reserved judgment to a later date.

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