This blog post is contributed by PhD candidate Mairead Enright whose research (on the nikah nama) is supervised by Dr. Siobhan Mullally and funded by an IRCHSS thematic grant for research into Gender, Equality, Multiculturalism and Religious Diversity
The issue of religious dress is at last beginning to make headlines in Ireland just as it has done in Denmark, France and the UK. Medical students who wished to wear hijab while working at Beaumont hospital (they were permitted to wear disposable hijabs) and a Sikh recruit to the Garda reserve who wished to wear a turban as part of his uniform (he felt unable to join after permission was refused) were the focus of comment in 2007. In May of this year the issue of religious dress in schools gained prominence.
14-year-old Shekinah Egan’s parents requested that she be allowed to wear the hijab to school in Gorey, Co. Wexford. Her school board of management granted permission but the principal referred the question to the Department of Education, which refused to provide the guidance sought. In practice, Muslim students have had permission to wear the hijab in a number of schools for some time. However, there is no consensus on the issue; the Sunday Business Post reports that a south Dublin school has banned the hijab, citing its Catholic ethos as justification. Both the ASTI and the Irish Council of Imams have emphasised the desirability of achieving a consensus on the issue.
The current Minister for Education has said that the government will consider whether to issue guidelines on the wearing of hijab in schools when it drafts an intercultural education strategy some time later this year. It seems likely that, if guidelines are issued, schools will retain a significant amount of discretion around the issue of religious dress. As we await the department’s decision, a number of important issues have ripened for consideration. They include:
Â· What the constitutional position on this issue will be. To date, there is no case on point and any argument on the hijab would be from first principles. For a summary of possible arguments see Claire Horgan, “A Veiled Problem: Religion in Irish Schools” (2005) 8 TCLR 5 (Available on HeinOnline). At ECtHR level, hijab bans were upheld in the context of a teacher of young children in a non-denominational school in Dahlab v Switzerland and in respect of a university student in Leyla Sahin v Turkey (where, of course, the state’s interest in preserving a policy of secularism was a core issue). Arguably, any Irish case would raise very different considerations, not least because the majority of Irish schools are Catholic in ethos rather than non-denominational. In England and Wales, school bans on forms of Muslim dress other than the headscarf – the jilbab (a long gown) and the niqab (a veil which obscures the face except the eyes) – have been upheld as consistent with the ECHR by the House of Lords and the High Court respectively. However, these decisions were made in the context of schools where alternative forms of dress which were acceptable to the majority of Muslim students in those schools were already permitted. In terms of issues of non-discrimination and freedom of religion, it may be that Ireland is largely free to carve its own path.
Â· Whether Ireland will follow other European countries on the retreat from normative multiculturalism, or whether aspirations for what the Statement on Integration Strategy and Diversity Management calls a “common sense” approach to cultural difference will be realised in a different form which will take account of the peculiarities of the Irish context. The education spokesmen of the major opposition parties have argued that the hijab engages crucial questions around the Irish approach to cultural difference and have called for a ban on the hijab in public schools. Labour’s RuairÃ Quinn stated that “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… Nobody is formally asking them to come here. In the interests of integration and assimilation, they should embrace our culture…Irish girls don’t wear headscarves.” Speaking to the Irish Times, Fine Gael’s Brian Hayes observed that “[t]here is enough segregation in Ireland without adding this to it.” Public opinion appears to be more nuanced. Monday’s Irish Times reported the results of TNS/mrbi poll on the place of the Islamic headscarf in Irish schools. 48% of those surveyed felt that Muslim students should be allowed to wear the hijab in state schools with significant differences of opinion between men and women, younger and older people, socio-economic groups and supporters of the main political parties.
Â· Whether it will be possible to develop policies around interculturalism which avoid essentialism and take account of the complexity of the issues at hand. For instance, the intersections of racial, cultural, religious and gender differences which characterise the hijab as a policy problem. To date, reference to gender has been curiously absent from political statements on the hijab. However, media commentary on the matter has run the full gamut of the “Multiculturalism vs. Feminism” debate. For a flavour, see Martina Devlin in the Irish Independent, Alison O’Connor in the Sunday Business Post and Breda O’Brien in the Irish Times.
Â· What will be the role of unelected representative bodies such as the Irish Council of Imams, which are gaining a significant role as spokesmen for religious and cultural groups, what effect their prominence in policy debates will have at a local level, and what steps will be taken to ensure that ‘minorities within minorities’, especially women and the young, will have a meaningful voice in negotiations around culture.
Â· Whether we are seeing in statements such as Mr. Quinn’s assertion that “Irish girls don’t wear headscarves” a nascent politics of belonging – similar to the exclusionary politics of Britishness promote
d in the UK – which defines Irishness, not in terms of birth or blood, but in terms of behaviour. Would our politics of identity be able to absorb hybrid notions of identity and will the process of integration require transformation on the part of established Irish citizens as well as on the part of newcomers? The story of the girl at the centre of the current hijab controversy: Shekinah Egan; the daughter of Irish and British converts to Islam, who wears her hijab to play camogie, neatly embodies this issue.