Newham councillors sign letter denouncing school hijab ban

Ten Newham Councillors have signed a letter condemning the hijab ban by St. Stephen’s Primary School and calling for the decision to be rescinded.

Councillors Mas Patel, Salim Patel, Idris Ibrahim, Firoza Nekiwala, Zuber Gulamussen, Susan Masters, Winston Vaughan, Mukesh Patel, Jose Alexander, and Harvinder Singh Virdee say the decision is discriminatory and has alienated parents and divided the community.

The school said earlier this week that it had banned the hijab for under 8s on the grounds of health and safety and intergration issues. The school also discourages young children from fasting during Ramadan.

Here is their statement in full:

As local Councillors we are very concerned at the recent events at St Stephens Primary School. The unilateral decision of the school to impose a ban on the wearing of hijabs and on fasting has understandably aroused great anger and concern amongst parents and the community.

News of the ban has now been reported in all the major national newspapers and parents feel they are being victimised for practising their faith. The result is that a disturbing toxic atmosphere has been created where parents and the school are locked in a battle of wills.

An online petition calling for an end to the ban has now gathered over 10,000 signatures and concerned people across the country are focussing on this issue in our borough. We find it hard to understand why at a time of such progress the community is being divided over an issue about religious freedom.

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The right of parents to raise their child in the best possible way is inalienable and it is worrying that schools or other public bodies should find it fit for themselves to dictate to parents how they should bring up their children or what they should wear.

Whilst the Council has little or no power to directly intervene we feel it is important that we, as local representatives, speak out and ensure that a resolution is quickly found.

Freedom to practice one’s faith is one of the fundamental freedoms we cherish in Britain. Parents must be trusted to bring up their child in the best possible manner to be full and active members of society and they should have the freedom to decide for themselves how to dress or bring up their child in their particular faith.

It is troubling that the school has decided on a course of action that has clearly divided them from the very community they look to serve.

Faith is a key part of residents lives in Newham. Over 80% of residents say they follow a faith, and this is why our borough is such a wonderful place to live, work and stay. All the major (and minor) world faiths are represented in our community and the Council recognises this by holding an annual faith conference along with smaller faith engagement forums that meet every quarter.

We strongly feel that public bodies such as schools should not unilaterally intervene in matters of faith without the full consultation of parents. It is very worrying that due to the predominance of one particular faith community at this school this ban only affects children of that particular faith.

However, the principle of intervening in matters of faith inevitably makes the issue go beyond this being about just one faith community and actually delves into the whole debate about freedom of choice and individual liberty. This decision sets a dangerous precedent that in future could easily affect children of other faiths. For example a Sikh child who wears a turban or an orthodox Jewish child who wears a kippah, could be banned from doing so by another over zealous school or public body.

To attack an article of faith and clothing in this manner is an outrage and is simply wrong. The argument against allowing school children of whatever age, to wear a hijab actually goes against our fundamental values as a progressive, tolerant and inclusive society. We therefore call upon the school to overturn this decision immediately and recommend that all schools in the borough and across the country adopt a responsible approach by formulating a policy towards matters of faith that is sensitive to the concerns of parents and children alike.

When schools focus solely on education they produce outstanding results as in the case at St. Stephen’s itself, which was recently awarded by The Times as “the best” primary school in the country.

As local representatives it is our job to protect communities from discrimination. It is very troubling to see that pupils, and the community they come from will, as a result of this action, feel victimised, intimidated and threatened when practicing their faith. Surely this is not what Newham or our schools stand for!

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