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     Volume 6 Issue 13| April 6, 2007 |

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Veiled Threats

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

It is hard to hold on to one's own culture while living in a foreign country. Being a minority creates all sorts of confusion. How can one remain true to their roots and simultaneously adapt to their outside surroundings? In the current political and global climate being a Muslim living abroad has become extremely difficult. Many find that because of their more 'extreme' counterparts making headlines all over the world, they are stereotyped and often victimised. This atmosphere makes it very difficult to hold onto one's beliefs. Some people give up all together, others try to maintain a balance. And then there is the third type -- the kind that holds on to their culture steadfastly, refusing to let go.

In an ideal world, it should not make a difference if cultures are different. We should be able to co-exist peacefully despite what we believe in or where we come from. But the truth is that it is human nature to fear what is not familiar to us. We are threatened by anything that is different.

Recently, the UK government passed a law allowing headmasters in schools the right to ban any kind of religious clothing, including Islamic hijabs or niqabs within the classes. The government itself has not banned such clothing at schools, but has merely given schools the right to do so if they see fit. The catalyst of this was a 12-year old girl's legal battle against a public school policy that prohibited her from wearing the niqab. The young girl's appeal was rejected by the High Court on the grounds that the use of the veil would interfere with teacher-student interactions -- the teacher cannot properly communicate with the student without seeing her face. In addition, there were the more obvious reasons such as creating an environment of equality among the students, as well as safety, by preventing someone else to come in the place of the student in question.

While these are all valid reasons when looked at from a practical point of view, one has to wonder where to draw the thin line between impinging on basic rights and providing a safe and equal environment for everyone involved. For example, is it absolutely necessary for the teacher to see the student's face in order to gage how much she understands and is learning? It is intimidating, of course, to not be able to see someone's face when you are talking to them, but is it not worth making an effort in order to respect the student's religious beliefs? Or is this just another excuse to hide the teacher's discomfort at having a “ninja” in her classroom? As for the safety concerns, are there not other ways of properly identifying students in order to ensure that there is no confusion?

It is difficult to take either side, as it always is in the case of religious customs and traditions versus mainstream saiety. It would be easy to peg this down as bigotry and intolerance, but is it really that simple? If students have to follow a certain dress code (which they all do -- be it uniforms or otherwise) there are always restrictions. A girl cannot, for example, walk into most schools in a tiny miniskirt and even tinier top barely covering her body because it is not appropriate to dress that way in school. One can make a similar argument when discussing the use of hijabs as it does set the student apart from the rest of her classmates and can cause all sorts of conflicts within the student body.

However, that being said, a law like this is, in many ways, an infringement of religious rights. A Muslim woman who wears hijab is not putting on an accessory or wearing the scarf as a fashion statement, as is the case when a girl dresses in a miniskirt or tight clothing. The hijab is a symbol of her religion. For many girls, going out without the hijab is like going out without any clothes on. It violates their sense of comfort and safety. And while girls who are dressed in revealing clothing are usually encouraged to cover themselves up more, girls in hijabs are basically being asked to reveal more, by having to take off a vital part of their daily attire. Thankfully, the ban has not become a law passed by the government of the UK, thereby giving schools the full responsibility. It is unfortunate, however, that the target of these schools' discretion is young girls who are trying to hold on to their religious beliefs in a world that has little tolerance for them.


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