The Shabina Begum case never had anything to do with modesty
By Boris Johnson, Tory MP.
I don't know whether you caught young Shabina Begum talking on the television yesterday, but, as I studied the pictures of this exceedingly good-looking and confident young woman, I was suddenly conscious of a paradox.
Here she is, at the centre of a national media storm, and one that has been very largely whipped up by her own supporters. There goes our Shabina, batting her (rather beautiful) eyes through her visor, and thereby exciting the interest of millions of otherwise apathetic viewers, who are not only infidels but very possibly male infidels at that.
This is the 17-year-old from Luton whose dress sense and physical form are now the number one subject for conversation in every household in the country; and yet for years we have been asked to believe that the reason she wanted to vindicate her right to break school rules, and wear a tent instead of shalwar kameez, was to protect - in the word of her lawyer, Cherie Blair - her "modesty".
What total tripe. This ludicrous and lamentable case had nothing to do with "modesty". I don't believe she wore the jilbab to "regain control of her body" any more than I could hope to wear a smarter suit and thereby regain control of my own.
This case wasn't even about religion, or conscience, or the dictates of faith. At least it wasn't primarily about those things. It was about power. It was about who really runs the schools in this country, and about how far militant Islam could go in bullying the poor, cowed, gelatinous and mentally spongiform apparatus of the British state.
Until yesterday, it seemed that there was nothing to stand in the Islamists' way, from the moment on September 3, 2002, when Shabina's brother and another man turned up at her school, and told a harassed maths teacher called Mr Moore that their Shabina was going to wear the full jilbab in the name of her "modesty", and that, if they didn't jump to it, the school would be sued.
And since the school refused to knuckle under, the extremist Islamic organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir backed a case for breach of her human rights, and soon Shabina had a starring role in the great Rocky Horror Show of British self-flagellation, featuring Cherie Blair, Matrix Chambers, assorted terrified judges and a chorus of cretinous articles by retired feminists, famous for living colourful lives in the 1970s, in which they declared that the jilbab was really rather lovely and "empowering", and that they wished they had worn one themselves.
Of course I don't really blame the Prime Minister's wife for the rubbish she spouted on Shabina's behalf. We all understand the cab rank principle for barristers. We know the size of her mortgage, and, if her firm had not trousered the £50,000 in legal aid, then someone else would have picked it up. But I do blame the Court of Appeal for its invertebrate performance, and to judge by the tremendous ruling yesterday from Lord Bingham and other Law Lords, I am not alone.
As Lord Bingham points out in his ruling, the Court of Appeal was quite wrong in its assessment of Shabina's human rights. Yes, she has the right to freedom of religion, but she could not manifest that freedom in such a way as to prejudice the school's ability to ensure discipline and order, and to run things in the way it wanted.
Even in Strasbourg, home of the European Court of Human Rights, there is a long-standing tradition of upholding the discretion of educational establishments in matters of dress - not least in several important cases defending the right of Turkish universities to ban headscarves.
How could the Court of Appeal have missed this? Is it really possible that British appeal court judges have less robust common sense than the judges of Strasbourg?
Or is it also that our judges suffer, like other parts of the British Establishment, from a certain leeriness and timorousness about Islam? I detect in the Appeal Court ruling in favour of Shabina, that was so ignominiously crushed yesterday, the same hand-wringing wetness that inspired some poor Welsh bishop to resign the editorship of his local church news after he was found to have printed a Danish-type cartoon of positively ovine inoffensiveness.
I am by no means a maximalist in all this. I would certainly not ban all Muslim attire, such as headscarves, from all state schools, not least because that would be discriminatory, unless we simultaneously banned Sikh turbans, Jewish yarmulkes, and so on.
I might add (before I am lynched by Hizb-ut-Tahrir) that my own Muslim great-grandfather was a passionate wearer of the fez, and much resented that his elegant red pillbox-and-tassel was deemed to be backward-looking and Islamicist, and banned by Kemal Ataturk, father of the modern secular Turkey.
But the demands of these men - the brother of Shabina and his friend - were outrageous. As the Law Lords have shown, Shabina's rights to freedom of religion were not infringed, because she could have taken herself to neighbouring schools that did allow the full jilbab, itself a sobering thought.
More importantly, by proposing to force the jilbabbed Shabina on the school, the men were deliberately setting out to undermine the careful compromise uniform that the school had worked out, which was approved by the Muslim Council of Great Britain.
They no doubt wanted to push the girls into a terrible game of holier-than-thou in which they competed, whether under pressure from their male relatives or not, to conceal ever greater stretches of their anatomy.
They weren't doing it for Shabina; they weren't doing it for the other female pupils; they were doing it to show that they could, and to take another yard of territory in the kulturkampf of modern Britain.
All around us, in our courts, in the oppressive liberty-destroying Bills being rushed through Parliament, we see the disasters of multiculturalism, the system by which too many Muslims have been allowed to grow up in this country with no sense of loyalty to its institutions, and with a sense of complete apartness.
In rejecting Shabina's case, the Law Lords have provided a small but important victory for good sense, for British cohesion, and for the right of teachers to run their own schools.
+-+-+-Boris Johnson is MP for Henley-on-Thames