Beware of 'cover creep' (National Post, March 29, 2006)

This month, there were two high court cases, one in Britain, one in Canada, both dealing with the limits to freedom of religious expression in public schools. The British case met an important principle head on. The Canadian case was a side show to the same important principle.

Britain's Law Lords -- the equivalent of our Supreme Court -- overturned a 2005 Court of Appeal ruling that allowed a Muslim student to wear the jilbab, a head-to-toe Islamic gown, to her London area high school. They noted that the complainant had the choice of attending another school where jilbabs were permitted. This decision sets a precedent empowering individual schools henceforth to set their own limits on freedom of religious expression.

In Canada earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) unanimously overturned a Quebec Court of Appeal ruling, which had upheld a school's rejection of a Sikh student's right to wear his kirpan, a ceremonial dagger, because it allegedly posed a danger to other students. The SCC ruled it didn't pose such a danger. The important issue, which the British court addressed, and the SCC never got to, is the incompatibility of religious costume in general with public education.

In her March 18 column, The Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente confessed that "my open-minded tolerance deserts me when I see women completely covered up. In every culture where this is the norm, women are oppressed." I feel the same. But Wente goes on to distinguish between full coverage and the hijab: "Head scarves ... don't bother me at all."

Here we disagree. The hijab lies at one end of a cultural spectrum with full-cover tent-like burkas at the other, and is subject to arbitrary "cover creep" at the discretion of a woman's male family members. Indeed, buoyed by the kirpan ruling, Quebec Muslims immediately announced their intent to press for admission of the hijab in schools. For if the kirpan, why not the hijab? And if the hijab, why not someday for some girls the jilbab and the burka -- not to mention mandatory prayer rooms?

All religious uniforms -- identical livery or accessories that distinguish wearers as members of a certain religious or cultural community -- are inherently socially aggressive. They have evolved with the intention to signify ideological "apartness" from other, differently outfitted religious groups or, in secular nations, from the variously clothed mainstream.

Apartness can be values-neutral: Earlocks and long black coats are merely a curiosity to non-Jews; a kirpan and turban are just exotic paraphernalia to non-Sikhs; a traditional nun's wimple -- nuns are women "of cover" in their way -- represents a devotional calling freely undertaken by autonomous adult women.

Cover for underage girls, on the other hand, sends a negative message, as it runs counter to the Canadian value of gender equality. For the student's hijab does not represent her personal devotional relationship to God (otherwise she would wear it at home too, like the cross, yarmulke and turban), but is in reality the public stamp of her chattel relationship to fathers and brothers.

In society at large, women's choice to wear cover is none of our business, no matter how much it bothers us. But we should at least withhold our endorsement of cover, and indeed all visible religious talismans, for children in public schools. School is a place where children need to learn an enormous amount in a compressed time frame in company with randomly assigned teammates. As in the sealed environment of the armed forces, where otherwise unlikely friendships crossing racial, socio-economic and social lines can be nurtured, group bonding at school is best accelerated and reinforced by as much external sameness as possible. Parents opposed to the desirable cultural anonymity provided by standardized school dress codes should send their children to community-supported parochial schools, as do, for example, virtually all Orthodox Jews.

France got it boldly right in 2003 in banning the hijab and anything that "ostentatiously manifests" religious belonging in all public schools. God is quite capable of recognizing His adherents' children without logos. Children have a lifetime ahead for showcasing their multicultural diversity. In public schools, children should meet and greet each other stripped of all identities but their common youth.

© National Post 2006