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The Herschel Girls School in Cape Town is a no-headscarf zone

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.

Featured image via the school’s Facebook page
28 Comments
  1. Rania A says

    Everyone has rules but we need to learn and accommodate, every rule can be bent with an exception. If the school strongly feels this will affect them in how by 1 or 2 girls wearing a headscarf then they have more problems coming.

  2. Caitlyn Olivier says

    Schools, both public and private, should be inclusive spaces for all and allow religious and cultural traditions and rules to be followed by learners in the school environment. I find it incredibly discriminatory to not allow this.

  3. Nomfundo says

    How about the author of this article also look at other religious based schools which support a certain ethos, for example:
    Islamia College is a Muslim School for all children but not in essence a school for Muslim children. By virtue of the aforementioned the school will seek to grant admission to students who are prepared to subscribe to the tenets of the Islamic faith in an equitable manner.
    Makes quite interesting case study…

    1. Yasmin says

      Agree, I’m also curious as to whether our islamic schools imposing the headscarf on students of other faiths is also an issue. The argument there is that if they want to attend then they should adhere to uniform rules? Is it the school who should change their rules or the student who should find a school who’s rules fit them?

    2. Triya says

      I’d also be interested to hear the authors view on Islamia College and other faith-based private schools. These schools are (privately) founded on cultural practices and religious teachings of certain religions so I guess people subscribe to these things to a certain extent when choosing to attend the institutions. These aren’t secular institutions so how does one balance the right to be able to have these faith based institutions exist and the religious freedom of anyone attending these schools…

      At Islamia College, are non-Muslim students allowed to eat their lunch publicly during the fast? Are non-Muslim male students given the option to skip mosque during prayer time? Does a non-Muslim girl have the option not to wear a scarf or. cover her legs/arms?

      1. Naaila says

        I’ve attended Islamia College and had a Christian girl in my class. She only attended the school because her mother wanted her there. I have not come across another student from another faith wanting to attend a visible Muslim school. We did not discriminate against her. If she wanted to eat during Ramadaan she could but she chose to feel it with us. She had no problem with wearing a scarf or learning the Qur’aan or Arabic and Islamic Studies. She however did not go to Mosque. And we respected that.

        You see Islamia’s uniform is like a full kit. You remove one part of it, it’s no longer a uniform. Where as Herschel there’s not much. It’s like adding a jacket or a beanie. Nothing is going to change the uniform because it’s simple a dress. Adding something is still not changing it because its one piece of clothing. (If you understand what I mean).

        And ditto what Richard de Witte said.

    3. Alexandra Souchon says

      This is a great idea, My question is, Why would anyone want to impose their dress code onto a group of people who are uniform and as an outsider coming in, who by their own choice, liking and hoping to be influenced by the atmosphere and the discipline of wearing that uniform creates, want to change the policy of uniform ? It’s a form of colonisation all over again and seems unreasonable.and goes against celebrating diversity.

  4. mohamed carloo says

    Covering the head of Muslim females is an Islamic injunction as the holy Quran states that when a female reaches the age of puberty then she must cover herself modestly from head to toe.so the student at this particular school should be free and as comfortable as possible to wear the scarf.

  5. Richard de Witte says

    The Virgin Mary is always represented with a scarf over her head. If the school actually want to follow the greatest woman to ever live they should actually get students to wear headscarves or at least allow students to follow the practices of such a great woman. But the school is actually secularists but claim to be christian when they want to be, to suit their purpose. It’s sad to realize such a prestigious school have such bad ethos

    1. Wendy says

      The Virgin Mary also wore long, floor length robes – it was how women dressed 2000 years ago. So maybe you think the girls should dress like that too?

  6. Shameemah Salie says

    In 2013 I made application for my daughter at several hugh schools one of the schools was Groote Schuur High School. During open day of the relevant school I asked if muslim children would be allowed to wear a head dress..(scarve). I was advised by a white teacher at the relevant school that wearing of scarves will not be tolerated. What shocked me further was on next question she advised that boys with long hair/ or braids were allowed to do so as long as it was tied up if it hung on their shoulder. I was disgusted in the relevant school. Both myself and a few other parents who were in the group immediately approached the principle with our comcerns. We were advised that the relevant board at the time had maintained policy of no headress and what was even more shocking was that one of the ladies on the board has been a muslim who had noted headress for muslim girls is not required.
    The principle encouraged parents to still do application to school as things would change….I believe it has ..as I have seen kids with scarves at the relevant school.

    Any school that does not respect my religion or other religions…I will not comparise on my or my childrens morals and values thank you very much

    However I elected a school for my child where all religions, cultures and believes are respected. Where my child will not be ostracized in any way…

    My personal opinion if Herschel is a school actually meant for Christians then respect the school ethos and values same way you would Islamia or Oracle…

    Parents have a choice….dont put your child in these schools there are other alternatives ….very good schools where all religions and cultures are respected…. I do not want my children to grow up in a box ..I want them to respect the values of other cultures and religions and learn to be tolerant even if their believes are different

  7. S Beukes says

    As Africans we should caution against the adoption of colonial practice that belongs in Europe. We continue to perpetuate dress code that follows that supremacy as if it is the barometer for respect. We are Africans before we are anything else. We should identify and accommodate our diversity.From hair to clothing please refrain from forcing us to celebrate colonialism

    1. Fadeel Hassen says

      Well said.

  8. G. Jacobs says

    Why would you want to send your very Muslim child to a very Christian school. Ofcos they have a right to their Christian rules at a Christian school. Same like a Muslim school won’t allow a Christian to NOT wear a headscarf if this is part of the school religious rules. Makes sense? I want the Quran instilled in the hearts of my children so I definitely won’t be sending them to a school that will be doing the opposite weather they allow the headscarf or not!!

    1. Gusi says

      The covering of a womens head is not just a Islamic propagation but also Christian and Jewish. It unfortunately is a custom for many people of these faiths to choose their scriptures and apply or to not apply it the way they want. In this case The Christian school is not conforming to their beliefs and is driven by the modern media revolution of anti Islam.

  9. Sylvie Souchon says

    Uniforms are a ridiculous form of post militarisation control, I hated my uniform the colour never suited me and the blasers always smelt disgusting they were expensive and uniform cartels cost my parents dear, my children were blessed never to wear one in all their years of schooling, I feel that tolerance and the allowance of self expression by children is healthier than these uncomfortable uniforms. Its a bit like grooming for mini patriotism, rather than co operative, tolerant and compassionate culture another false boost to capitalistic grooming.The ‘rules’ at the schools my kids attended were around firstly the children’s comfort and physical safety, ie no earrings or chains that could be ripped in play or physical training etc guidelines to prevent exposure to the sun, ie low or spagetti tops excessively short shorts and skirts for both sexes, as well as modesty in not exposing their bodies to the younger children and each other unnecessarily. I think schools who impose on any students their religous codes should not be allowed, who are we to moralistically dictate to others and prescribe for them what spirituality means, as a global citizen who respects others rights I say stop controlling and indoctrinating our youth with your bigotry !

    1. Jon Low says

      Choose a school where uniforms are not required, if it is truly so offensive to you.

  10. DifficultSituation says

    Always a funny situation when two illogical dogmas with zero verifiable evidence for their confusing rules log heads.

    If two books supposedly written by the creator of the universe both decree different things, which one has the upper ground in the eyes of the constitution? Islam is clearly enjoying playing both sides of the field right now, enjoying its victimhood status in the midst of (to be fair sometimes genuine) instances of Islamophobia, while simultaneously being an extremely powerful institution with massive societal pull.

    As others above point out, if the roles were reversed would Islam be as accommodating? It certainly wouldn’t have become a think piece on The Daily Vox if so, which would gladly throw every persecuted minority under the bus so they can continue to whitewash away the problematic patriarchal elements of Islam.

    Hypocrites.

  11. Robert says

    I would want to know whether it is an essential part of Islam or just tradition. Where I went to school ( visibly) wearing a cross was not allowed. The rarionale was that it was nto a component of the Christian religion to wear a cross. How Muslim is the headcovering?

    1. Irfan says

      Interesting question. Why do you ask? Do you ask perhaps because you are of the opinion that others can dictate to Muslims that their religion does not require it? Why do you think it is worn by so many? Do you think they wear it because it is NOT required by their faith? Lastly, do you perhaps have a few “progressive” Muslim friends who have told you (in their superior understanding of these matters), that it is not required?

  12. Nasema says

    Would Mr West and SGB feel the same way if it was a child of Catholic Christian practice attending an Anglican day school and wearing her Catholic head scarve in mass?

    i am interested to know what they would decide in this instance?

  13. Fadeel Hassen says

    The Constitution of the land is Supreme; all other policies, be it at a private school or business must be subjective to the Constitution.

    Secondly, I am amused by this school’s “Christian beliefs” when Jesus’ mother, Mary, Mother Teressa and many known respected Christian figure heads are all depicted wearing scarfs- a true Christian tradition.

    I think the school is prejudicial and still live in the dark ages. I am completely surprised, since this school claims to pride itself on its academic prowess.

    1. Dave says

      Just out of interest, do you think that Islamia School should allow kids to not wear a headscarf?
      Does forcing kids to wear a headscarf belong the the Dark Agew?

      BTW – It’s an Anglican School… Anglican’s are not big on covering heads. Catholics are.

  14. Shanaaz says

    I feel it’ is a personal choice we make to wear a scarf as it is a form of identification been a Muslim .
    Cape Town has many private schools and one of the good Muslim schools is Islamia where u can dress according to ur beliefs , especially when it come to acting and behaving modestly more than looking it which i find young girls are faced with today .
    So in a nut shell I feel if u want to wear ur scarf and follow ur beliefs u should be in likeminded environment and not want to impose ones belief on another institution who has a different religion . This is where we need to practice tolerance and understanding and most of all respect .

  15. Sharief says

    why do u want to.put your child in a anglican scho then moan about it if their rules are clearly defined
    come on there are muslim schools. we need to be tolerent about others especially their cultureir can a non muslim go to Mecca or Madina. wait does Islamia allow non muslims?…yes im a muslim and while i am anti all these advantages schools who rape and pillage our communities of our talented sportsman…in this instance we are wrong…

  16. Just irritated says

    You atend the school out of choice, no one forces you to go to this school but by choosing to go to this Anglican Christian school you need to abide by the school rules – if you have a problem with Christian values ans dress codes and your religious attire is so important to you then attend a Muslim school or at least a school that is not a firmly established Christian school.

  17. Chris Wheeler says

    Just notice for a moment, if you will, how absurd this all looks from a secular perspective. Freedom from religion, anyone?

  18. Anna says

    Shanaaz has put this in the correct context. I am all for tolerance and acceptance but if you accept an offer at a faith based school it is just ridiculous to start insisting that existing codes of conduct be changed for you. And quite frankly you are asked to change the uniform based on your personal religious symbol. Why attend the school in the first place when you have a number of options where this issue is not a problem. I wonder if Muslims and others in this situation realise how intolerant you are of the ethos in a Christian School. And stop making everything anti Muslim. It isn’t. Respect the beliefs of the school and those who chose the school based on those beliefs!

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