Monday June 02 2008
MUSLIM girls should not be allowed to wear a headscarf in public schools, the two main opposition parties said last night.
Labour's Ruairi Quinn said immigrants who come to Ireland need to conform to the culture of this country.
"If people want to come into a western society that is Christian and secular, they need to conform to the rules and regulations of that country," the Labour spokesman on education and science told the Irish Independent.
His comments come amid mounting controversy over guidelines on the wearing of the hijab, commonly worn by Muslim girl in state schools.
His stance on the issue was backed by his Fine Gael counterpart Brian Hayes, who says it makes "absolute sense" that there is one uniform for everyone.
The Fine Gael education spokesman said the wearing of the hijab was not a fundamental requirement to be a Muslim, but more an example of modesty and cultural mores.
Recently, Nicholas Sweetman, principal of Gorey Community School, Co Wexford, called for official direction to bring an end to the practice of schools imposing divergent policies.
The Wexford controversy followed the Department of Education's refusal to offer advice to the school when a Muslim couple asked last September that their daughter be allowed to wear the headscarf in class.
Mr Quinn said immigrants should live by Irish laws and conform to Irish norms.
"Nobody is formally asking them to come here. In the interests of integration and assimilation, they should embrace our culture," he said.
He added: "Irish girls don't wear headscarves. A manifestation of religious beliefs in such a way is unacceptable and draws attention to those involved. I believe in a public school situation they should not wear a headscarf."
Mr Hayes said Ireland should not be going down the route of multiculturalism.
"It makes absolute sense that there would be one uniform for everyone. The wearing of the hijab is not about religiosity, it is more an example of modesty. It is not a fundamental requirement to be a Muslim," he said.
But Fine Gael and Labour's position on the controversy sparked an angry reaction.
Islamic Society of Ireland spokesperson Summayah Kenna branded the comments by Mr Hayes and Mr Quinn as "baffling", adding the hijab was a religious obligation.
She said she was "shocked" by Mr Hayes' assertion that it was otherwise, and urged him to check up on his information.
And director of the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism Philip Watt said the "ill-thought" comments from both political figures were "disappointing".
Last night, a spokesperson for Integration Minister Conor Lenihan said he had no problem with students wearing the hijab.
"For those that wear the hijab, it's an issue of modesty. It's not so long since Irish women wore headscarves to church, so we have to respect that," the spokesperson said.
At present, individual school authorities are responsible for the drawing up of school rules, including school-uniform requirements.
But the Education Act requires school boards to have respect for the diversity of values, beliefs and traditions.
The Department of Education said last night it had asked Mr Lenihan to consider the matter in the context of the development of an Intercultural Education Strategy.
It said nothing would be ruled in or out until after talks take place.
- Patricia McDonagh