COMMENT

The Jeppe High School for Girls controversy

Zohra Dawood says seven Muslim girls, all in hijab, claimed discriminatory practices against them

Inclusive Education

10 October 2018

The recent Jeppe High School for Girls controversy has forced many in the country to look afresh at issues of religious and cultural inclusion.

This after seven Muslim girls at the school, all in hijab, claim discriminatory practices against them for having to wear a separate uniform. 

The school does not discriminate against the girls for wearing hijab, they can wear a black headscarf and cloak. The issue in dispute is that these pieces of clothing in no way indicate that they represent the school, nor are they allowed to display their achievements as other students do on blazers. The absence of the school logo and or colours as direct association with the hijabi students is the core of the dispute. 

Matters came to a head when the girls wore their “alternate” uniform and incurred disciplinary action against them. The Gauteng Department of Education intervened and urged all parties to postpone the disciplinary hearings until it had investigated. The Department’s Steve Mabona said, “we must also emphasise that the SGB and parent body agreed in principle to amend the code of conduct not to be in contravention with the Constitution”. This matter was elucidated by the lawyer acting for the seven girls when she said that a disciplinary hearing “would be procedurally unfair and was based on a clause in the school’s code of conduct that infringes on the right to equality and did not comply with the school’s constitutional obligation to make reasonable accommodation for religious and cultural practices”.             

The matter is pending. It would behove all parties to resolve the matter amicably. Perhaps all parties should also be reminded that in the Pillay matter in mid-2014, the “Equality Court found that a ban against the wearing of the nose stud undermined the value of religious and cultural symbols and sent a message that those practices did not merit the same protection as other rights or freedoms. The failure by the school to recognise the [Hindu] place in society and to allow them to enjoy their culture and practise their religion, amounts to repudiation of their equal worth and respect as human beings.” The Court overturned a 2005 ruling banning the nose ring from being worn at school.   

At the heart of this matter is that of embracing inclusivity and respect for cultural and religious practice, core to the founding principles of the Constitution of the country. Inimical in this process is the matter of embracing diversity and its multiple representations. 

Enlightened examples of inclusion can be gleaned from the US military, the NYPD and Police Scotland, where Muslim and Sikh officers can wear hijab and turbans as expressions of their religious faith and cultural practices. These policy revisions are motivated by attempts to promote diversity and inclusion. At the time of the announcement of the change in police uniform to include the hijab in August 2016, Police Scotland’s Chief Constable said, “I hope that this addition to our uniform options will contribute to making our staff more diverse and adds to the life skills, experiences and personal qualities that our officers bring to policing the communities of Scotland”.   

As in the cases cited above, Jeppe High School for Girls might also think hard about how best to leverage the benefits of diversity to enable all students to feel a sense of pride and belonging manifest in adorning the colours and symbols of the school. A protracted legal battle is not in anyone’s interest.        

By Zohra Dawood: Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity, 10 October 2018