Intercultural adviser warns hijab ban may cause tensions
BANNING THE hijab or other religious symbols which are important to minorities is "likely to result in tension with those communities where no tension existed before", according to the director of the State's advisory body on intercultural affairs.
In a detailed intervention in the debate over whether Muslim pupils should be allowed wear the headscarf in State schools, Philip Watt of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism said most schools had already found their own "sensible and sensitive compromise" by allowing it to be worn provided the colour was consistent with the school uniform.
He argued that it made sense for boards of management to continue to decide on future policy, with some non-prescriptive guidance from the Department of Education, but stressed that allowing the hijab did not mean that all religious symbols and obligations should necessarily be allowed.
Among the issues that schools would have to consider were health and safety, and the need to maintain effective communication in classes.
Mr Watt suggested that those advocating a ban on the hijab "may, or may not, have fully considered the consequences of such a ban, for example in respect of all religious symbols and obligations in Irish schools". While much of the focus had been on the Muslim headscarf, other religious symbols were worn in Irish schools, including the Sikh kara (a bangle), the Sikh patka (a scarf worn by boys and young men), the Jewish kippah or skullcap and Christian crucifixes. The pioneer badge, the sacred heart and crucifixes are worn by some teachers.
"The banning of religious symbols or obligations solely aimed at one religious community or indeed all religious faiths is potentially discriminatory and likely to be tested in Irish law," Mr Watt said. "In 2004 the French government considered the issuing of a ban on the wearing of the hijab in French schools, but after legal considerations decided that the only way that such a ban would be legal would be to ban virtually all religious symbols and obligations, including large crucifixes."
Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes and his Labour counterpart Ruairí Quinn said separately last week that they opposed the wearing of the hijab in the country's secondary schools, though Mr Hayes made a distinction between State-run VEC schools and those run by religious orders, which decide their own rules. "There is enough segregation in Ireland without adding this to it. Segregating in this way is not helpful to Muslims and not helpful to anybody," Mr Hayes said.
In yesterday's statement, Mr Watt also sought to correct the impression that all Muslims are recent immigrants. Just under a third of the 32,500 Muslims in the Republic are Irish.
An Irish Times/ TNS mrbi poll conducted last week found that 48 per cent of people feel the wearing of hijabs should be allowed in State schools. Some 39 per cent disagree and 13 per cent have no opinion.
The full NCCRI paper can be read on www.ireland.com/focus/2008/Hijab-debate/index.htm