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Schools and religious attire

25 January 2013, 07:30

This piece is a response on the article School must resolve headgear matter - dept and the opinion poll asking A school's decision to ban pupils over religious attire. When I last looked it was an even 50/50 split between whether it should be up to schools’ discretion to allow religious attire or not. After I’ve read the article, I found myself filled with bewilderment on legal, educational, religious, political and personal dimensions. 

Only ten years ago when I’d been in grade 10, we used to print out the constitution in the government gazette - specifically the one about no discrimination can be made based on appearance, religion, sex, race - and showed it to teachers when they reprimanded my male friends and I for having hair that was too long. The teachers simply waived the documents we were holding, admonishing us to have our hair cut lest some punishment be heading our way the next day. Soon after, we surrendered. We didn’t even dare do the same when we were forced to participate en masse in the rituals, rites and sermons we didn’t believe in or felt just. To this day my alma mater and most other public schools are pontifically disregarding the constitution by keeping only one specific religion (Christianity) mixed in our education.  

When I read about a South African school banning two pupils based on their religious attire, the blatant hypocrisy struck me so hard l fell off my chair. While my many people like my friends and I were compelled and assumed to be part of religion, some other pupils may not be part of a school because of theirs. Something’s awry here. I can completely understand why school uniforms are mandatory; it does facilitate much needed order in the classrooms and eliminates any class discrimination based on appearance (suspending the debates that are based on required appearance AROUND the uniform like long hair and hijabs). However, to ban pupils because they wear matching headscarves (headgear sounds more like sport equipment to me) like hijabs for religious reasons can only be regarded as a discriminatory act. Many commentators on the forum concerning the above mentioned article argued that if hijabs were to be allowed, then it will soon lead to Rastafarians bringing dagga and dreadlocks to class. Since possession of illicit narcotics and being intoxicated in public is enough to be banned irrespective of religion, I maintain that it doesn’t fall under this topic. Dreadlocks on the other hand, just like hijabs should be allowed. I argue that this is the only way to ensure freedom of religion, given that religion is still permitted to be practiced at school.

To allow sermons and prayer in this country from a religion to be compulsorily conveyed to all pupils in a public school, religious or not, can simply not be reconciled with banning pupils wearing hijabs that match their school uniform. Both all religions and their rites should be tolerated in schools, or a completely secular environment should be upheld. Otherwise such banning points straight to favouring one religion over the other, which seems like discrimination and not discretion to me. I personally opt for a secular environment, since I see religion as a private matter and cannot imagine a school being able to afford forking out the additional resources to provide for all - or one - of the official religions, especially since we don’t even have enough resources for education exclusively. If somebody wants to learn more about religion (more than only one hopefully) in schools, subjects should be able to be selected to accommodate such pupils. If citizens are in turn concerned about the moral consequences of a religion-less school system, then I suggest teaching secular ethics courses. Yes there are such courses, and they are also not as difficult to learn and interpret as the Bible, Koran etc. Contrary to popular beliefs, morality is possible without religion.

In conclusion I maintain that either all religions and its accommodating attire, rituals, rites and sermons should be permitted in schools; or uniforms should be abandoned (not a good option but it allows for any attire); or a completely secular environment should be encouraged concentrating school activity chiefly on education. Discrimination and pains in the neck is inevitable without such a resort.

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