A British Muslim girl on Wednesday won a long legal battle to force her school to let her wear traditional full-length Islamic dress in class, a case reflecting similar debates elsewhere in Europe.
In a verdict with potentially far-reaching implications, the High Court in London said that Shabina Begum, 16, had been unfairly excluded from the school for wearing the garment known as the jilbab.
Denbigh High School in Luton, north of London, had also denied Begum - who was represented by Cherie Blair, the lawyer wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair - the right to practise her religious beliefs, the court ruled.
"Today's decision is a victory for all Muslims who wish to preserve their identity and values despite prejudice and bigotry," Begum, who now attends another school where the jilbab is permitted, said outside the court.
"It is amazing that in the so-called free world I have to fight to wear this attire. This amazement has not been left unnoticed in my community, the Muslim community, who see a concerted effort to dehumanise Muslims and vilify Islam."
The award-winning school, 80 percent of whose pupils are Muslims, had argued the decision was made purely because a flowing jilbab was a considered a safety risk, and that female Muslim pupils had plenty of other choices of attire.
The High Court battle, which closely echoed controversy over a French government decision to ban "conspicuous" religious insignia such as Islamic headscarves in schools, saw an initial ruling in the school's favour last June.
However, presiding judge Lord Justice Henry Brooke reversed this judgement on Wednesday, also calling for the Department of Education to advise schools on how to comply with their obligations under the Human Rights Act.
"The school undoubtedly did exclude the claimant. They told her, in effect: 'Go away, and do not come back unless you are wearing proper school uniform'," he said.
The Muslim Council of Britain hailed the decision as "very important", noting that opinion on proper attire for Muslim women varied greatly.
"Within this broad spectrum those that believe and choose to wear the jilbab and consider it to be part of their faith requirement for modest attire should be respected," secretary general Iqbal Sacranie said.
"Today's judgement is a clear reflection of that common-sense approach."
The court had heard that Begum, an academically strong pupil of Bangladeshi origin who hoped to become a doctor, had previously worn a shalwar kameez, a traditional South Asian form of attire comprising trousers under a dress-length tunic.
But having developed a deepening interest in Islam, Begum arrived at the start of the academic year in September 2002 wearing a jilbab, was told to go home and change, and refused.
Denbigh School's lawyers argued that she could have worn skirts, trousers or a shalwar kameez, and that by being the only pupil to insist on wearing the jilbab had effectively chosen to stay away.
During an appeal in December, prominent civil rights lawyer Blair - who uses her maiden name Cherie Booth in her professional life - argued that the girl's rights had been infringed.
"Her rights to manifest her religious beliefs should be respected," said Blair.
"I say our policy is to respect diversity, and it is not for the public authority to judge which beliefs are more valid than others," she said.