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Hijab sparks controversy in Ireland

A small town in southern Ireland opens up a nationwide debate over whether Muslim students should be allowed to wear it in Irish schools.
Liam Egan, left, and wife Beverly, share a joke with their daughter, Shekinah, at the family's home in Gorey.
Liam Egan, left, and wife Beverly, share a joke with their daughter, Shekinah, at the family's home in Gorey.

A small town in southern Ireland has become the unlikely scene of a controversy involving the Islamic headscarf, opening up a nationwide debate over whether Muslim students should be allowed to wear it in Irish schools. When Liam and Beverely Egan - both converts to Islam - enrolled their daughter, Shekinah, 14, in Gorey Community School in September of last year, the principal, Nicholas Sweetman, initially told them she would not be allowed to wear the headscarf, or hijab, as it contravened the requirements of the school uniform.

But after the couple conveyed to Mr Sweetman the religious significance of the hijab he agreed to let Shekinah wear it, though he said the case would have to be referred to the school's board of management, which in turn requested guidelines from the department of education. "You don't see this happening with any other religious symbols, only the hijab," said Mr Egan, 40, who converted to Islam 12 years ago and returned to his native town of Gorey, about 100km south of Dublin, last summer after spending 11 years in Saudi Arabia and Yemen where he and his wife taught English.

The hijab "should be protected under the [Irish] constitution. We believe a woman should be allowed to express her religious beliefs," he said. The departments of education and integration are deciding whether to formulate guidelines for school uniforms, ostensibly in response to the case of the Egans, and will issue their recommendations in the coming weeks. The outcome will likely see the niqab - the full face and body covering - banned and possibly the hijab, too, Mr Egan said.

Mr Sweetman said the board of management had sought guidance from the department of education to ensure their school was adhering to the same policies as schools throughout the country and to determine what clothing is, and is not, permissible. "There should be a government policy to clarify issues like this," he said. "If someone decided to wear the niqab for example, some teachers might feel uncomfortable with that."

The story attracted widespread national and international media coverage after it broke in the Irish press. Many politicians and commentators said immigrants and minorities should respect Irish culture and some schools have taken measures towards banning the hijab, with one reportedly citing Ireland's "Catholic ethos". "If people want to come into a western society that is Christian and secular, they need to conform to the rules and regulations of that country," Ruairi Quinn, a Labour Party member of parliament, told the Irish Independent.

Ireland, a predominantly Catholic but secular country, has agonised over its identity in recent years as more than a decade of continual economic growth has brought about significant social and cultural changes. The country's population, which has grown by almost a million since 1996 to 4.5 million, has struggled to absorb the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have arrived looking for jobs, fuelling the booming economy but dramatically changing the country's demography.

At the same time the role of the Catholic Church - central to Irish life for hundreds of years - has waned considerably. To date, schools in Ireland have largely tolerated female students from the country's Muslim community of just under 33,000 wearing the hijab as long as it matches the colour of the uniform, in contrast to other European countries like England, where there have been moves to have it banned, and France, where all religious symbols have been prohibited from schools.

Moreover, an Irish Times survey of 1,000 voters found that 48 per cent of the public support the wearing of the hijab in state schools against 39 per cent who oppose it, while 13 per cent had no opinion. Notably, more women (55 per cent) support the right to wear it than men. Mr Egan said a minority of "extreme secularists" were behind opposition to the hijab and were playing on fears within the Irish public that religion will become a powerful force again, as it once was under the Catholic Church.

"They link everything to the power the Catholic Church held, and every religion suffers because of this fear," Mr Egan said. "Secularists should not be attacking religion. They've chucked God out the window and replaced him with [atheist and secularist author, Christopher] Dawkins." Shekinah Egan said she did not know what she would do if the hijab is banned from schools. "I am worried they'll come along and say I can't wear it," she said. "And they haven't really come up with any reason.

"If they do ban it, it will be a huge problem for me." @Email:jspollen@thenational.ae

Updated: September 20, 2008 04:00 AM