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Islamic Dress Ban Upheld in the UK

On March 22, 2006 the House of Lords gave a critical ruling in a case involving the right to wear a traditional Muslim dress.  Begum took to court the Denbigh High School (Luton, England), arguing that she was unlawfully excluded when she disobeyed the school’s uniform policy, which she considered in breach of Islamic requirements of modest public dressing for women. Begum claimed that the school denied her the right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights.  She lost her original case before the High Court, but later won an appeal before the Appeal Court.  The school appealed against this decision and the House of Lords, the highest court in England, ruled in favor of the school.

The headmistress and 79 per cent of the pupils at the Denbigh High School are Muslims. Begum had voluntarily attended the school since 2000; she was fully aware of its uniform policy.  Pursuant to Department for Education and Skills guidelines on accommodating the needs of different cultures, races and religions, the uniform had been designed in consultation with parents and local mosques.  Female Muslim students had the option of wearing the shalwar kameeze (loose tunic and pants).  In 2002, Begum decided her faith mandated wearing jilbab (a head scarf and a long over garment). She was disallowed from attending school so clad, although she was encouraged to return properly attired and sent homework.

The Law Lords ruled that a school had a legal right to enforce a school uniform policy; the Denbigh High School’s policy had been determined in a proper manner, as sensitive a manner as could possibly be imagined.  Lord Hoffman commented that while a person has a right to manifest their religion, it does not amount to the right to manifest it in any time or place of their own choosing.

The lawyers in the Begum case contemplate an application to the European Court of Human Rights to judge on the compatibility of the British position with the European Convention on Human Rights.




  • Dominic McGoldrick. Multiculturalism and its Discontents, 5 Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 25 (2005)
  • Li-ann Thio, School Dress Codes, Religious Freedom and Human Rights, 2005 L. Q. Rev. 572 (2005)
  • Samantha Knights, Religious Symbols in the School: Freedom of Religion, Minorities and Education, 5 Eur. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 499 (2005)

Other Jurisdictions

Legal debates concerning the Islamic headscarf and state education have arisen in other European counties. 

In Germany, the Constitutional Court ruled (Case No. 2BvR 1436/02) that Stuttgart school authorities were wrong to bar a female Muslim teacher from a teaching job because she insisted on wearing a headscarf in the classroom.   

In France, the Parliament passed the law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools (Loi n° 2004-228).  The law amends the French Code of Education to the effect that students are banned from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols” in French government-operated primary and secondary schools.  The new law expands on the principles of existing French law, in particular on the constitutional requirement of laïcité: the separation of state and religious activities.  The law does not mention any particular religious symbol, but many see it as specifically targeting the wearing of headscarves by Muslim schoolgirls.

The European Court of Human Rights has upheld bans on wearing Muslim dress, a form of religious expression, in public educational institutions within secular political orders: Sahin v Turkey (June 29, 2004, App No.44774/98).



Adrien Katherine Wing, Monica Nigh Smith, Critical Race Feminism Lifts the Veil?: Muslim Women, France, and the Headscarf Ban.

Case Note: Sahin v. Turkey. APP. NO. 44774/98, 100 Am. J. Int’l L. 186 (2006)

Oliver Gerstenberg, “Germany: Freedom of Conscience in Public Schools”, 3 Int'l J. Const. L. 94 (2005)

Benjamin D. Bleiberg, “Unveiling the Real Issue: Evaluating the European Court of Human Rights’ Decision to Enforce the Turkish Headscarf Ban in Leyla Sahin v. Turkey”,

Elisa T. Beller, “The Headscarf Affair: The Conseil d'État on the Role of Religion and Culture in French Society”, 39 Tex. Int'l L.J. 581 (2004)


Written  October 12, 2006. Updated March 26, 2008

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