Note: The phrase “attention-seeking muslims” is in quotation marks. These are words borrowed from an online discussion of the Kenya High Case on the Hijab.
The drafters of the Kenyan Constitution were well aware of the problems that could be caused by insisting on a strict separation between church and state. At the same time, the predominance of Christianity coupled with the strong presence of Islam and other religious beliefs throughout the Republic must also have been on the drafter’s minds. So, our constitution makes a compromise which is now entrenched in the Bill of Rights. Every person is required to recognize all religions and not discriminate against any religious group but also every person particularly the State is required to treat all religions equally.
With this background, the question that has recently arising involves the hijab (female muslim headscarf) and whether it should be banned in our public schools.
I concede that the free exercise of religion component enshrined in our Constitution should not be narrowly construed to include only known practices, teachings and observance of a day of worship. Furthermore I understand, albeit not first-hand, the significance and role of the hijab in the muslim faith. However a move by a public or private school to forbid female students of muslim faith from wearing the hijab should not be construed as direct discrimination against muslims or even worse an all-out assault on Islam.
The Board of Governors is the legal authority in all schools empowered to come up with all rules and policies including code of conduct, disciplinary guidelines, fees structures and admission policies. This Board ought to be guided by a need to achieve a culture of reconciliation, teaching, learning and mutual respect and the establishment of a culture of tolerance and peace in the school. This must be done in the context of the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights contained in the new Constitution of Kenya. Every student must be accorded ‘inherent dignity’ and ‘the right have his/her human dignity respected’, in the sense of mutual respect including respect for one another’s religious convictions and cultural traditions. In this regard educators and learners should be encouraged to learn the importance of mediation and co-operation, to seek and negotiate solutions to conflict and differences.
It is indeed sad that the issue of Kenya High ( a reputable single-sex girls’ High School) and it’s muslim students have gone to court over a matter I believe could have been resolved amicably and satisfactorily out of court. I hold the view that when a school determines its school uniform, it takes into account the wide and diverse range of cultural, religious and social backgrounds of its students and balances this consideration with its own ethos, tradition and values as a school.
That said, I think setting a school uniform that forbids all forms of outward manifestations of religion including conspicuous crosses, hair styles, skin markings and garments is not per se discriminatory. The whole rationale behind a school uniform is to create equality among all students, rich or poor, black or white, hindu or muslim etc.. The school uniform is an integral part of instilling discipline in students and projecting a positive image of the school. The hijab’s role is clear yet it comes into question when discussed in the context of an all-girls school with little or no male staff around, as is the case of Kenya High.
Be it as it may, the fundamental question here is whether a student’s right to equality, dignity and freedom of religion is unreasonably and unjustifiably limited by prescribing a standard school uniform devoid of any other garments, adornments and symbols religious or otherwise. Personally my answer would be no. Let us not start comparing Kenya with France whose legislature banned the hijab in all schools and public institutions. Presently, we are only dealing with one school and its strict uniform policy. But in the spirit of mutual respect, reconciliation and tolerance, I believe that the Board of Governors of schools, parents and students should strive to negotiate, discuss and compromise with each other whenever rules and policies are being made touching on such sensitive matters as freedoms of expression, conscience, religion, belief, association and opinion.