LONDON -- A school violated a student's human rights by banning her from wearing a traditional Muslim gown to class, a British court ruled yesterday, ending a more than two-year legal battle.
Assimilating Muslim students is a sensitive political issue in Europe, especially in France, which last year banned ''conspicuous religious symbols," such as head scarves from state schools. Britain allows individual schools to decide what form of dress is appropriate.
Shabina Begum, now 16, was sent home from school in Luton, north of London, in September 2002 for wearing the jilbab, a long, flowing gown covering all of her body except her hands and face.
She first went to the High Court, arguing that the ban breached her right to religious freedom under the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court rejected that argument in June. But yesterday a panel of three Court of Appeal judges ruled that Begum had been illegally excluded from the school, which ''unlawfully denied her the right to manifest her religion."
The teenager was represented in her high-profile appeal by Cherie Booth, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Muslim leaders welcomed the ruling that Denbigh High School had breached Begum's right to freedom of religion. The school said it was trying to respect the views of all its students -- and balance competing views of what is ''appropriate" Muslim attire.
Begum, who now attends a school that allows her to wear the jilbab, said the ruling was ''a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry."
''It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this attire," she said.
Four-fifths of Denbigh High's students are Muslims, and the school said its ban on the jilbab had the support of many students and parents.
The school argued that the jilbab posed a health and safety risk, and might cause divisions among pupils, with those who wore traditional dress being seen as ''better Muslims" than others. Pupils are allowed to wear trousers, skirts, or a traditional shalwar kameez, consisting of trousers and a tunic, and female pupils may wear head scarves.
Yasin Rehman of the Luton Council of Mosques said the school's dress code was ''very satisfactory" and worried the appeal court's ruling could complicate matters.