The Guardian wrote:A Muslim mother has launched legal action against her daughter’s school, after being told she could not wear a face veil on its premises.
Rachida Serroukh, 37, a single mother of three daughters, has begun a discrimination test case against the prestigious Holland Park school, dubbed the “socialist Eton”, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea after she was told she would not be allowed to wear a face veil at the school.
Serroukh, a devout Muslim who has worn a face veil for the past 14 years, was delighted when her 11-year-old daughter was offered a place at the school. Not only was it across the road from where they lived, Serroukh – who was born in Ladbroke Grove – had studied there, achieving good grades.
“Education is very important to me and I want to ensure that all my children get a good education,” she said. “My daughter, who will be starting at Holland Park after the school holidays, did really well in her year 6 Sats and was the top girl in her class.”
But when she attended an evening for parents of new pupils at the school on 13 June, she was shocked to be challenged over her decision to wear a face veil.
After a talk by the head teacher, Serroukh – a qualified childcare assistant who plans to return to work when her daughter is settled in school – was approached by a member of staff who asked to speak to her. She was taken into a room and told it was the school’s policy not to allow face veils on school premises.
“I was already feeling uncomfortable because I had to leave my daughter standing on her own,” said Serroukh. “As the teacher was female, I lifted my veil when we were talking together in the room.” She had already been surprised, she added, that at the welcome event for about 200 parents – including five or six who were identifiably Muslim – the head teacher said in his speech that the school was secular and did not offer prayer rooms “although it showed video footage of the school choir singing in a church”.
At first Serroukh thought that the teacher who raised the veil issue had misunderstood and thought her daughter would be attending school in a face veil. “I explained clearly that my daughter wears a headscarf and would not be coming to school in a face veil. Then I realised she was talking about me not my daughter.”
Serroukh asked several times to see the school policy banning visitors from wearing a face veil, as she was aware that a friend who also wore a similar veil had been attending school events for five years without encountering any problems.
“I had had no problem from security at the school gate when I entered the school and nobody there had mentioned a policy. I always lift my veil and show my photo ID when required to do so for security purposes,” she said. “I didn’t want to challenge the teacher until I had seen the policy.”
Serroukh said the teacher then asked her to leave the school through the back exit, but she refused, explaining she needed to collect her daughter and would be leaving through the same door she had arrived – the school’s front entrance.
“I was very shaken and was in a state of shock about what had happened,” she said. “I had never experienced anything like this before. I have experienced name calling in the street from strangers about my veil but nothing like this had ever happened before. When I got home, I just broke down.”
She wrote to the school for clarification on the face veil ban. Guidance from the Department for Education states that it is up to individual schools to decide about whether staff and pupils can wear face veils, but it says nothing about parents and other visitors.
In an email from deputy head Ross Wilson to Serroukh on 21 June, the deputy said the school did not have a written policy banning visitors wearing a face veil.
“It has not been necessary to date for the school to have this requirement stated in written policy,” wrote Wilson. “Given the concerns you have raised, we are now considering a written amendment to our health and safety policy to include this specific requirement and will follow the normal protocol of seeking the approval of the governing body.”
Replying on 12 July, Serroukh wrote: “How are you able to justify banning the face veil for all which come onto school grounds? I had shown my face prior to coming onto school grounds therefore security cannot have been a cause for concern.”
The following day, Wilson said it was a health and safety issue to be able to identify all of those on the school site, adding: “We would wish to reiterate that no offence was intended when Mrs … met with you to discuss the situation on the evening of the welcome interviews and it was the school’s intention to provide clarity and transparency.”
The incident left Serroukh feeling upset and excluded from her own community, she said: “I feel like I don’t belong here even though I live across the road and used to attend the school.” She stressed that she wanted to work with the teachers and, when she was taking qualifications to become a nursery nurse, she lifted her veil while working with children. “What has happened to me at Holland Park is discrimination. I hope we can resolve the matter amicably,” she said.
Her solicitor, Attiq Malik of Liberty Law Solicitors, said the firm had drafted a letter to the school because it was a “straightforward” test case of discrimination on the grounds of religion. “The government constantly talks about British values. To me, those values include diversity and multiculturalism. If a school in London is doing this, what might be happening elsewhere?”
The school has not yet responded to repeated requests to comment; Kensington and Chelsea referred enquiries to the school. But in Wilson’s 13 July email, he referred to Serroukh’s account of the meeting with the teacher during the parents’ welcome evening, saying “we believe [it] to be factually inaccurate”.
...take your common sense with you, and leave your prejudices behind...