Going bonkers over a bangle

Readers from the UK may have heard about a recent discrimination case in which 14 year old Sarika Watkins-Singh won the right to wear her plain steel kara to school.

The school she attends had excluded her due to her insistence on wearing the kara which contravened its rule disallowing all jewellery. There have been quite a few similar cases over the years. Predictably, any concession to non-Christian religions in these matters yields cries of “Political correctness gone mad!” as can be seen from about half the comments on the BBC News Have your say page.

My first thoughts were in support of Sarika. I don’t see the harm in her wearing her kara, except perhaps for sport or metalwork classes for which she is apparently happy to take it off. In fact I’m all for freedom of belief, up until the point it infringes on other people’s rights. For example if people were carrying real daggers, I think this presents a danger (as much to the wearer as anyone else) and directly contravenes the law regarding offensive weapons. I don’t think bangles like this are hurting anyone. In fact I don’t see the problem with any kind of jewellery in schools.

That is, in fact, my point. It’s certainly not fair if only religious jewellery is allowed. I don’t see anything special about a religious belief over any other kind of belief. If someone wanted to wear their grandmother’s necklace simply because of the sentimental value it had for them, that should be considered equally important as religious jewellery and treated with the same respect. Not to do so is in itself a form of discrimination on the grounds of belief (or lack of belief).

I understand that the school wishes to “create a community ethos” (according to a quote in the Guardian) by enforcing uniform rules. Perhaps the worry is that if jewellery is allowed in schools it will encourage expensive bling and a separation of the haves from the have-nots. I don’t work in a school, so I’m not sure how much of a problem this might be, but I don’t see the harm in letting pupils express their individuality. There are plenty of other things they can do to foster a sense of community, such as inter-school competition, sports, debating, etc. Expressing their individuality is a good thing. It’s what people in real communities do. I don’t see how pretending or insisting that everyone is the same is at all helpful. Children should leave school with at least the inkling that different people believe different things.

So I support Sarika in wearing her kara, just as long as the same rules are applied to everyone regardless of whether their symbols and beliefs are religious or not.

10 thoughts on “Going bonkers over a bangle

  1. As I understand it, one of the major original bases for school uniforms was to promote egalitarianism by minimising class distinctions.

  2. John Morales,
    That seems like a worthy aim, although it’s hard to say if it’s worth the trade-offs.

  3. This issue is kind of lost in translation for me. In California we don’t have school uniforms (for 99% of public schools), though we certainly have dress codes. There’s also a clause in the Constitution protecting freedom of religion, so out of curiousity, I went to Google to see if there was a similar law on the books in the UK. That’s where I found the Human Rights Act of 1998, but is that the only law? It’s so recent that I’m wondering (and perhaps you could tell me) if it’s difficult for the country to make the mental transition. Ironically, when I lived over there, I got the distinct impression that England seemed to separate church and state much better than America seems to…

    So given that, I don’t understand all the “PC gone mad!” headlines. Can you explain? How is that an issue of political correctness and not a clear-cut issue of law? Is it just me and my American brain that automatically looks at an issue like this as a no-brainer? Certainly she should be allowed to wear her jewelry, and I agree that if someone has a strong sentimental connection to a piece of jewelry they should also be allowed to wear it.

    Maybe this is where my lack of understanding about the whole school uniforms issue kicks in. I understand it’s supposed to level the playing field in terms of societal & wealth status, but really? A steel bracelet?

  4. PS Sorry, I should’ve added that obviously rules aren’t much good without enforcement.

  5. Suzanne: We do seem to manage to keep Church and State seperate over here, in spite of having an official state religion and a monarch who is also head of the Church. Bizarre.

    As for the cry of “PC gone mad”, that’s just the Daily Mail readers. It’s a knee-jerk reaction Middle-Englanders have whenever they encounter something that doesn’t involve them persecuting a minority, killing an animal or getting away with traffic offences.

    So far as school uniforms go, I used to have to dress in the most horrific orange blazer/blue-and-red tie combination when I was a kid, so I’m not a passionate advocate of school dress codes. I think they garbed us like that to teach us survival skills – once you left the school gates, every other kid in the vicinity would laugh at you and try to set you on fire.

  6. Thanks John and yunshui for the link and contribution, I’ll now post what I wrote this morning before I realised I was going to miss the train.

    Suzanne,
    I don’t think there is a specific law covering the freedom of religion in the UK (although I haven’t looked into it in detail). The following BBC article on the religious hatred law is probably the nearest thing. The reason is that officially we have an established religion, The Church of England. Until last year blasphemy was technically illegal, which would have in theory forbidden the practising of other religions. However, in practice the blasphemy law had not been enforced for years (which is why it was repealed). In practice the CoE is fairly irrelevant to most people’s lives in this country (even some who would write C of E on the census form). Most people are kind of ambivalent about religion here. Having strong opinions on religion seems somewhat taboo.

    I’ve heard it said that in the US, the many churches operated like a free-market and competed aggressively with each other (because none were given official government backing). So as you say ironically the separation of church and state is in effect less effective than in the UK. Or at least you can get elected in the UK without mentioning that you’re a Christian every five minutes. Although to be fair to the US, I think there are more people of ethnic minorities reaching higher positions in politics than in the UK.

    So any concessions to “foreign” religions (obviously Jesus was English ;-P), is not for legal reasons, but in the interests of keeping everyone happy (political correctness – which also covers things like saying “Person with a disability” rather than “Cripple”). (I’m sure John will correct me if I’m getting this wrong). As an example, a few years ago Birmingham (which has a large Muslim population), sent out a leaflet promoting its winter celebrations in the city. This was neutrally-titled “Winterval” not “Christmas”. So the conservative “Britain for the British” brigade claimed this was “Political correctness gone mad”. They were concerned we were becoming a Muslim country by the back door, or pandering to the needs of whichever minority seemed most uptight and easily offended. “Political correctness gone mad” is a phrase used with alarming regularity on the letters pages of right-wing tabloids. That’s hardly surprising given the incendiary headlines they manage to generate. (then again I did just write a post titled “Going bonkers over a bangle”…)

  7. Short version: religious excuse for rule-breaking.

    It’s privileging religious beliefs over other putatively deeply-held beliefs.

    Essentially, it’s saying “I’ll feel distressed without my bangle, so bugger the school rules. My stated opinion counts for more”.

    Bah. I refer readers to Pat Condell, who covers this theme.

    I’m sure John will correct me if I’m getting this wrong

    Well, it’s only ever my opinion – I might at any time be wrong and would hope to be corrected.

    However, one thing that struck me about the original post but (since this seems to be wrapping up) I might as well bring up now:

    14 year old Sarika Watkins-Singh won the right to wear her plain steel kara to school.
    The school she attends had excluded her due to her insistence on wearing the kara which contravened its rule disallowing all jewellery.
    […]
    I don’t see the harm in her wearing her kara, except perhaps for sport or metalwork classes for which she is apparently happy to take it off.

    Um. Did you not note something fishy about that?

  8. Um. Did you not note something fishy about that?

    Ah-ha! So there are some times you can take the kara off.

  9. For some reason, this reminds me of the woman who wanted to wear the full veil while teaching – except she was apparently quite happy to take it off for the job interview…