Should religious symbols be worn in school


This debate is one of an increasing number within the wider issue of religion and education. It is intrinsically linked to these other debates, including faith versus secular education, school dinner menus, and the teaching of creationism versus evolution. This is an international issue, with each country appearing to approach it differently.

***summary from other countries ****

There have also been a number of notable cases in the UK. ****

In this essay, I will explore what is meant by religious symbols, explore the main arguments within this debate and identify possible ways of resolving the debate.


It is important to clarify what is meant by the term “religious symbols”. They can be defined as any object, jewellery item or piece of clothing worn or carried according to the doctrine of the individual’s religion, usually as specified in religious texts.

For Christians, this is typically the wearing of a cross or crucifix necklace, as outlined in 1 Corinthians, “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23). In Islam, there are guidelines for both men and women. Muslim women are instructed to wear the hijab, a headscarf covering the hair, a nijab, a veil for the face and/or a jilbab, a long loose-fitting dress-like garment. According to Martin et al. (2003), the symbolic meanings of these have changed through the centuries. Originally the term hijab referred to a veil or curtain used to provide privacy between man and woman. Men are instructed in the Qur’an to address the wives of the Prophet Muhammad from behind this veil. Today this is represented by Muslim women wearing the veil as a symbol of modesty and virtue.

There are five religious symbols for Sikhs, including the dastar, a turban that must be worn by all Sikhs who have been baptised, and the kara, an iron bracelet, representing eternity. Jewish symbols include the Star of David, usually worn as a necklace, and the kippa, which is a flat hemispherical headpiece worn at all times by male Orthodox Jews. The Talmud, a collection of religious teachings, instructs, “Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you”.

Although all of these religious symbols may be the cause of controversy, following the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, overwhelmingly the news coverage and academic research focuses on symbols of the Muslim faith. This will be reflected by the content of this essay. Research indicates a recent significant rise in “Islamophobia”, a phenomenon defined by Gottschalk & Greenberg (2007) as a social anxiety based on stereotypes and fear of Islam and Muslims, and heightened in the public trough the media. According to a poll commissioned by The Guardian newspaper in 2005, Islamophobia has increased even further following the London bombings in July of that year.

However, Kalakan et al. (2009) reviewed of surveys conducted between 2000 and 2004 of Americans’ views of Muslims and found no significant change in their opinions. Appleton (2005) interviewed 238 Muslim students following the events of 9/11. An overwhelming 222 stated that they were opposed to the attacks, with many citing Islamic philosophies as the reason. This indicates a deep misunderstanding of Muslims, which would inevitably contribute to Islamophobia.

As LaBelle (1976) states, schools are microcosms of mainstream society, and so it can be expected that any issues faced by society will also be experienced by pupils. This is demonstrated with the debate on the wearing of religious symbols in schools.

There are four main areas of argument within this debate. These are that the wearing of religious symbols:

Poses a health and safety risk.

Inhibits integration.

Inhibits the interpretation of facial expressions.

Contravenes school uniform policy.

Religious symbols pose a health and safety risk

A number of education authorities have raised this as an issue. For example, in an article in the Times newspaper, the London borough council of Tower Hamlets has banned the wearing of religious clothing stating that the jilbab may pose a trip hazard for pupils wearing it or it may become entangled in science and technology machinery. Similarly, Denbigh High School cited health and safety as one of the reasons for suspending pupil Shabina Begum for wearing a jilbab. While the High Court supported the school’s decision to suspend Begum as she violated the uniform policy, the Court dismissed claims that there were any health and safety issues associated with this garment. Guidelines published by the National Union of Teachers (NUT) states that, “In most lessons, the wearing of the hijab or jilbab would not present a health and safety hazard to either the wearer of the garment or other pupils”. It does, however, recommend reviewing the length of these garments in some cases.

In terms of personal safety, those pupils wearing religious clothing may face an increased risk of bullying, a cause of non-attendance and pupil distress (Noaks & Noaks, 2000). Revell (2010) conducted interviews with a total of 116 primary school children from Kent and Medway. A minority of the pupils used racist language to describe Muslims, although most pupils recognised that this was socially unacceptable. A larger percentage stated that they perceive Muslims as “not normal” or “different from us”. However, discussions followed the interviewers presenting media images of Islam to the children, which may have led to them giving responses they thought the interviewers wanted to hear, rather than their true views.

According to Eslea and Mukhtar (2000), Indian Muslim, Paskistani and Hindu children are all the victims of widespread bullying in schools. However, they note that these children are equally likely to be bullied by Asian children of a different ethnicity as by white children. Bullies were also reported as being from the same religion but a different caste. In addition to this, white British Muslim women also report receiving racial abuse while wearing the hijab (Franks, 2000), indicating that bullying is a reaction to the clothing itself rather than the ethnicity of the wearer.

In contrast to this, Juvonen et al. (2006) analysed questionnaires from more than 70 primary school children. They found that the more ethnically diverse the class, the safer children from an ethnic minority felt. As the study focuses on perceptions of safety among ethnic minorities, the reactions of white pupils were not explored. It is unclear whether they felt the same or whether they experienced a decreasing sense of safety as the classes became more ethnically diverse. Similarly, Schreck et al. (2003) found that although social factors, such as religious beliefs or ethnicity, did lead to a greater risk of victimisation, the risks were more closely linked with the attributes of classmates. For example, the risk of victimisation was greatest when classmates included potential offenders and those who associated with known offenders.

Religious symbols inhibit integration

Frances Child, a secondary school teaching writing in the Daily Mail, describes her experiences of teaching three Muslim who wore a nijab to school. She states that without being able to see the girls’ faces, she forgot their names and could not discern their levels of engagement as she could not see their expressions. According to Child, the girls did not engage in class discussions and she blames the nijab for their isolation. The girls became “shadows” and their lack of involvement meant that they were ignored by her and their classmates. Child extols the virtues of eye contact in forming bonds with students; however, the nijab does not cover the eyes and so arguably this is not an issue. As the teacher, Child could have made more effort to engage the pupils and to ensure they understood the course, something she admits herself.

In opposition to this view that these students do not integrate in class, Housee (2010) found that they remain silent in class because they are intimidated by speaking in front of their peers. These pupils benefitted from small group seminars following lectures, during which they expressed the same quality and depth of conversation as their classmates.

Similarly, the claim that the girls in Childs’ class were ignored by their classmates because they did not interact can be contradicted by research by Zajonc (1968). He explored a case where a new pupil, dressed head-to-toe in a black bag, entered an Oregon classroom. He joined the class for three sessions each week, but did not interact in any way and did not reveal his identity. The students’ attitudes towards Black Bag was initially hostile but over time this changed to curiosity, with students eventually stating that they developed a friendship with him. According to Zajonc, this was because he was a familiar and predictable presence in the classroom. This is an extreme example, but may also be applied in some cases where Muslim students who have limited interactions with their classmates.

Carroll and Hollinshead (1993) reported that Muslim women are less likely to engage in physical education because of the emphasis of modesty within their culture. Similarly, ethical issued may be raised in coercing these students to participate in physical education during Ramadan, a time of fasting.

In the case, of a 12-year old Muslim girl suspended from school for wearing the nijab, the school defended its decision by stating that the nijab was a security threat, as the pupil was not instantly recognisable. The school also felt that it contravened its equality policy. In addition, the school stated that the nijab impaired teaching and learning. It is worth noting that all of these claims were upheld by the court except the last. Judge Stephen Siber dismissed this on the grounds of lack of evidence (Smith, 2007).

Religious symbols inhibit the interpretation of facial expressions

As has already been highlighted in Child’s article in the Daily Mail, teachers feel it is important to be able to read the expressions of students. It is also important for classmates to be able to interpret facial emotions. The wearing of the nijab may inhibit this. Younger children experience difficulty in identifying emotions, even when the whole face is visible. Gagnon et al. (2010) found that 5 and 6-year olds found it hard to recognise fear and disgust from a selection of photographs of facial expressions. In addition, they experienced difficulty in distinguishing between disgust and anger and between fear and surprise. Pupils with special needs may experience even greater difficulty in recognising emotions. Kats-Gold et al. (2007) found that schoolboys at risk of ADHD demonstrated impaired emotion recognition. None of the boys who participated in the study were from special needs schools, meaning they are representative of pupils in mainstream education. Similar results were found with individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism (Baron-Cohen et al., 1997a). However, only adults were used in this study, making it difficult to generalise the results to schoolchildren. Arguably, pupils will experience even more difficulty in identifying facial expressions in pupils wearing the nijab, with greatest difficulties experienced by pupils with special needs. All of these studies used photographs rather than real faces, which means the results may be as severe in the classroom.

In contrast to this, Bindemann et al. (2008) found that participants found it harder to name simple facial expressions, such as happiness, fear and sadness, when the eyes in the photographs are averted. This indicates the importance of the eyes in emotion recognition. However, in an investigation into the role of the eyes in interpreting emotion, Leppanen and Hietanen (2007) found that eye cues had no effect on accuracy of recognising happy emotions. However, it did take participants longer to identify happy emotions when the eye cues were removed from images. There was no difference for other emotions. Similarly, Baron-Cohen et al. (1997b) found that when recognising basic emotions in photographs, reading the whole face produced significantly better results than just the mouth or the eyes. However, they found that for complex mental states, including scheming and thoughtfulness, reading the eyes alone produced significantly better results than just the mouth and equally good results as seeing the whole face. A study by Sadr et al. (2003) identified that the eyebrows were also important for emotion recognition, with participants demonstrating a significantly poorer performance on emotion recognition when the eyebrows were removed from photographs. These studies indicate that it would still be possible for pupils to interpret emotions in classmates wearing the nijab.

Verbal cues also play an important role in understanding emotion. Sabatelli and Rubin (1986) cite emotional expressivity as playing a central role in the forming of relationships. Those individuals with high emotional expressivity are perceived as more popular because those around them can easily interpret their emotional state. This has implications for pupils wearing the nijab. Even with their face concealed, they can transmit their emotions through their expressivity. However, if Muslim students are reserved, then this will make interactions even more difficult.

Religious symbols contravene school uniform policy

Kaiser (1985) highlights a number of benefits of school uniform. It reduces pressure on budgets for parents; it increases levels of discipline and improves levels of respect for the faculty. According to Kaiser, it promotes cohesion and downplays the socioeconomic differences between students. Bodine (2003) found that school uniforms correlate positively with academic achievement. School uniforms enable quick identification of pupils, making intruders easily recognisable. They also indicate to wearers that a high level of discipline is expected (Joseph, 1986). Stanley (1996) also believes school uniforms inhibit gang behaviour, by preventing members from wearing gang attire. It is arguable then that any contraventions of the school uniform policy will have a negative impact on academic achievements and discipline.

Molokotos-Liederman (2000) reported that the wearing of the nijab with school uniform was the cause of widespread discipline and dress codes issues in France. These partly contributed to the decision to ban the nijab in schools. Cheurprakobit and Bartsch (2005) cite the implementation of a school uniform policy as an effective way of reducing crime both in and out of school. A study of the implementation of a mandatory school uniform found that one year after the policy was introduced there was a significant improvement in academic achievement and levels of discipline among elementary school children. However, no difference was noted in those pupils from middle schools, indicating school uniform is more effective with younger children (Shawburger-Pate, 1999). In contrast to this, Yeung’s (2009) literature review of this area indicated that there was only limited evidence that school uniforms have a positive impact on achievement.

Swain (2002) found that when the school uniform policy was relaxed, pupils used clothing as a way of expressing their personalities. This in turn led to increased bonding with peers, increased self-esteem and increased sharing of common interests. Swain also notes that those pupils who conformed entirely to the uniform policy were at an increased risk of victimisation. Gereluk (2007) states that when judging whether school uniform policy has been violated, teachers should consider whether the violation raises health and safety issues, and whether it oppresses the individual. It should also be considered whether the clothing is a fundamental element of the individual’s identity. This is clearly applicable to the wearing of religious clothing; in some cases, the garments may be an intrinsic part of the individual’s character.


This is clearly a complex issue. It cannot be addressed in isolation, as it overlaps with so many other school issues, including diet, language, content of lessons and assemblies, hair colour and style, and make-up. It is also part of a wider discussion about symbols, including gang clothing, political slogans on t-shirts and bracelets in support of causes. Finally, it forms part of the wider social issues of gender discrimination, oppression, feminism, the conflict between tradition and modernity, secularism, ethnocentrism, globalisation and human rights.

Gereluk (2009) argues that this debate is a small scale representation of the way society as a whole addresses issues relating to multiculturalism and accommodation. She believes this issue is typical of many within education, in that it is “poorly understood, with both policies and arguments poorly articulated”. She argues that the onus be shifted from those wearing the religious clothing to the state. She believes that it is the responsibility of the state to provide evidence against the wearing of religious clothing, rather than being the responsibility of the individual to justify why they should wear it.

A possible way forward is suggested by Shah (2008), who recommends applying the Muslim concept of Adab as way of facilitating multiculturalism in schools. Adab is a philosophy that focuses on developing self-esteem, positive self-perceptions, academic achievement and integration. It is based on the concept that these are all linked and can be enhanced through understanding diversity. It is clear that there will be no easy resolution to this debate, but perhaps, as Shah argues, a good starting point is to look to other cultures for guidance.

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