Religion, religious symbols and schools
Sunny Hundal has written a thoughtful article over at Comment is Free on the case of the young girl who was internally excluded because she wore a Sikh kara to school and wouldn’t take it off. Though Sunny starts off claiming that because he associates the judicial ruling permitting the girl her jewellery with fairness he won’t make many friends, I was actually persuaded during my reading of his article.
Upon first hearing about the case, I snorted and was mildly irritated that a school couldn’t carry through a ban on jewellery simply because of a religion. However, Sunny’s article made me reconsider my opinions for a variety of reasons – and not all of them were the one’s I think he aims at in his discussion. Firstly, my take on fairness has little to do with the ‘liberal, pluralistic society’ which Sunny wants to live in.
Actually, if we’re going to take about fairness we should recognize that school jewellery bans are often arbitrary – permitting watches but not bangles, permitting one stud in each ear for girls, but not for boys and no second piercings for girls. The list of things I’ve seen schools arbitrarily ban just because they think they should is endless. In the case of the Sikh girl, other girls were allowed to wear watches, so why not a kara?
Such a view neatly sidesteps the religious connotations of the piece of jewellery in question, but then the school didn’t ban it because it was religious, it banned it because it was jewellery. The second question of fairness, which Sunny highlights, is about the appropriateness of the response by the school to the persistent wearing of the kara. Not only was the girl held in internal exclusion for 9 weeks but also:
The school canteen was barred to her and so were its corridors whenever they were being used by other pupils. She was not allowed to join her friends in the playground and had to be accompanied by a teacher when she went to the toilet.
Having been on the wrong side of school-based arbitrary authority I very much sympathize with the Sikh girl. For what reason can a school oppress a young girl so heavy-handedly? It’s not like she’s smoking, dealing drugs, having sex in empty classrooms or any number of the more serious offences which any teacher could list. This girl was excluded and kept as though a prisoner because she refused to take off a piece of jewellery.
I find that goddamn heroic.
Rather than turning this into a question about religious artifacts, we should instead question why jewellery is forbidden in some classrooms but not others, in some schools but not others, or only some pieces of jewellery but not others. In many cases the rules are straightforward but teachers don’t apply them – I know I don’t. There are other ways to establish one’s presence in a classroom than by sniping about jewellery.
This is one of the central issues that seems to get lost in the rush to judgment about whether kids should be allowed to wear religious symbols to school.
On that particular issue, I’m torn. I would say that I don’t see any obvious difference between the Islamic burqa and a crucifix or skull-cap. People might say that the burqa or its variations represent the oppression of women, but then many religions are basically the canonization of ridiculously outmoded and reactionary ideologies. If one is going to be banned for secular reasons, then ban them all.
In considering this, there are the practical considerations of reaching out to religious communities, many of which are based upon ethnically-identifiable sections of the working class. However rather than opportunistically trying to grasp at religious issues in the hope of persuading them to join a progressive alliance, I’ve always been more in favour of recruiting the more advanced layers of each religion on the basis of a plain socialistic platform.
Within that platform, there is no room for religion. If someone wants to believe in god, that is their concern – but in matters political, either rationality comes first or one is not a socialist.
This leaves us with the issue of the indoctrination of children, brought up at an early age to believe whatever their parents spoon feed them. This government has confounded any attempt to deal with this problem by its support for and expansion of faith-schooling in the UK. If banning religious imagery in schools is part of a concerted effort to get rid of faith schools, then I support it – but outside of a calculated, openly presented programme of political change, it seems unnecessarily petty.
In fact, going beyond petty, it can seem to victimize the religious minorities in this country because a higher proportion of those who consider themselves part of a minority religion are actually religious. This is compared with the seventy-some percent of the country that is Christian, versus the 7 percent who go to church regularly. That’s something that we have to guard against because a precipitous decline in race relations plays into the hands of the far right.
An additional consideration is that, for as long as ‘worship’ is still demanded by those parts of various Education Acts currently in force, and this usually translates as Christian or at least monotheistic worship, it seems somewhat hypocritical to be in favour of a clampdown on religious imagery. Overall, a consistent policy is what we should be aiming for – and it obviously can’t hide behind the excuse that this is all about jewellery. As I’ve indicated, that in itself is often inconsistent and arbitrary.