A Muslim family have turned down a spot at the Herschel Girls School in Cape Town after the school refused to accommodate their daughter’s request to wear a headscarf with her uniform.
The school, a private, Anglican Christian school, said the request was debated at council level and Archbishop Thabo Makgoba was consulted on the matter. Council and management subsequently decided that no accommodation could be made for the girl’s headscarf as the heritage and ethos of the school is enshrined in its uniform policy.
In an email to the parents, the school’s headmaster, Stuart West, said Herschel has a Christian ethos and value system which is reflected in its established and accepted uniform policy.
“It is policy that all girls attending Herschel are required to respect the school’s Christian ethos and those practices and policies that reflect that ethos and Anglican heritage,” wrote West.
He added that the school makes some accommodations for Muslim students, who wish to dress modestly. “Devout Muslim girls who attend Herschel refrain from covering their hair and respect this aspect of the school community,” said West.
Muslim students at Herschel are allowed to cover their bodies but not their hair. For example, they are allowed to wear a longer dress, or to wear stockings underneath their school skirts in summer and full length slacks in the winter, if they wish to cover their legs. The girls are also allowed to wear a jersey and blazer at all times in order to cover their arms.
“Upon request, we make every attempt to make reasonable accommodations to our uniform policy. The school has regard to the provisions of the relevant sections of the Constitution and cases which may have a bearing on decisions which need to be made from time to time,” West told The Daily Vox.
According to Islamic scholar, Farzanah Adam, the concept of hayaa or “modesty” in Islam describes both humility in dress and a mode of behaviour that moderates a Muslim person’s conduct both before others and when one is alone before God.
“The modest dress of Muslims, particularly the woman’s headscarf, has become synonymous with the concept of modesty in Islam,” Adam told the Daily Vox.
Legal questions concerning religious identity and school policy have been raised at South African schools before. In 2011, Odwa Sityata, then 15 years old, was suspended for refusing to cut his dreadlocks, which he wore as a devotion to his Rastafarian faith. Sityata faced a disciplinary hearing and was charged with failure to comply with the school’s rules and regulations. Following discussions between his family, the school governing body and the NGO Equal Education, he was allowed to return to school and was not required to cut his dreadlocks.
The most well-known case concerning school rules and religious belief is the 2004 Pillay case. Sunali Pillay, a student at Durban Girls High School, went to court after being told to remove her nose stud, which she wore as part of her Hindu tradition. Although the Equality Court first ruled in favour of the school, the High Court ruled that the school had unfairly discriminated against her.
In his ruling on the matter, Constitutional Court Justice Pius Langa said, “As a general rule, the more learners feel free to express their religions and cultures in school, the closer we will come to the society envisaged in the Constitution. The display of religion and culture in public is not a ‘parade of horribles’ but a pageant of diversity which will enrich our schools and in turn our country.”
The South African Constitution provides for equality and religious freedom.
According to Chapter 2, Section 15 (1), everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion. Obligatory and voluntary religious and cultural practices are protected by the Equality Act.
According to constitutional law expert, Professor Pierre De Vos, discrimination on the basis of culture or religion is also prohibited by the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (Pepuda). Pepuda trumps any other legislation in South Africa and was instated to give expression to the Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution.
“As this Act states that it trumps any other legislation, this means, as the law currently stands, the school is probably in breach,” said de Vos.
He added that Pepuda is supported by Section 9 of the Constitution, which prevents discrimination, even by private institutions like schools.
Asked to respond, West said: “As an independent school we have a right to set uniform (dress code) and other requirements that are in line with our Christian ethos, history and values. A head scarf does not form part of the school uniform.”
What do you think? Is requesting to wear a headscarf at an Anglican school just extra? Or should schools, both public and private, be inclusive spaces for all, regardless of their religious affiliations? Comment below or tweet us @thedailyvox.