Policy U-turn on hijab in Irish schools

The Department of Education outlined its policy on students wearing hijab in a letter to a Dublin school as long ago as 2005. It told a Dublin teacher that she should allow a student to wear the hijab, a Muslim headscarf covering the head but not the face, during PE.

The clearly defined policy contrasts with the lack of guidance given to a principal in Gorey Community School last year when the same issue arose. He was told that it was up to the school’s board of management to decide whether pupils could wear Muslim headdress.

The advice issued in 2005 is contained in a letter released under the Freedom of Information Act. Brian Hayes, Fine Gael’s education spokesman, said it showed that the department had shifted opinion on the wearing of the hijab since first issuing advice three years ago. “It shows that instead of drawing up clear guidelines and sticking to them, the department has just confused its position in the intervening period,” he said.

In 2005, Matthew Ryan, the principal officer in the department’s post-primary administration section, issued a clear directive to Our Lady’s Grove in Goatstown. In a letter he stated: “Where a school admits a person of a religious denomination but then seeks to impose a dress code requirement which runs contrary to that student’s religious beliefs, it may constitute unlawful discrimination against that student.”

The letter states that the Equal Status Act 2000 prohibits a school from discriminating against a student on religious grounds. “It follows that this department would expect schools to allow students of that denomination to wear the hijab and indeed it is our understanding that this approach is being followed by schools,” the department wrote at the time.

Liam Egan, the father of the girl from Gorey Community School whose wearing of the hijab prompted her principal to seek advice from the department, said that equality legislation had not changed since 2005. “The law has not changed, so why has the department changed its position? Since 7/7, this has become more of a political issue. My daughter wore the hijab all through her first year in school and it was not contentious. Then, at the end of the year, it suddenly became an issue,” he said.

Sunday Times, 3 August 2008