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The Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) is denying that its policy barring the wearing of the hijab in its schools breaches citizens’ constitutional right to freedom of religious beliefs.
Lawyers representing the religious organisation made the statement yesterday when they wrote to the Office of the Attorney General seeking information on the Government’s proposed interpretation lawsuit over the issue.
In the 10-page letter, attorney Kiel Taklalsingh questioned the initial complaint by on-the-job-trainee (OJT) Nafisah Nakhid which caused a massive public furore and led to the proposed intervention by the Government last week. Nakhid, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering, had initially claimed she was barred from entering Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College for a placement interview unless she was willing to remove her hijab—the traditional Islamic headscarf.
Taklalsingh vehemently denied the claim as he suggested Nakhid was allowed on the compound but told of the policy during the placement interview. Referring to Nakhid’s complaints published on her Youtube channel, Taklalsingh denied the school’s hijab policy meant that it discriminated against Muslims.
“The SDMS has absolutely no policy and/or rule which forbids Muslims from entering its compound and it is a matter of record that teachers and students of the Islamic faith attend and fully participate within the operations of Lakshmi Girls’ High School,” Taklalsingh wrote. While he said the hijab is a personal choice based on an individual’s interpretation of the Holy Quran, Taklalsingh said his client did not subscribe to such a view. He also noted that the policy is applied to the “orni,” a traditional headpiece worn by Hindus.
“While the SDMS takes no issue with Ms Nakhid’s right to proudly display her hijab, the SDMS trusts and expects that Ms Nakhid and indeed the State should also respect that the SDMS respectfully disagrees with the religious expressions and philosophical underpinnings associated with the hijab and reserves the right to prohibit the use of same within its compound and the educational institutions under its purview,” Taklalsingh said. Taklalsingh referred to two international cases over the barring of the hijab at education institutions, which were decided by the European Court of Human Rights and the United Kingdom’s House of Lords. In essence, both courts ruled that freedom to practice religion does not equate to the right to display religious symbols, garments and paraphernalia openly without restriction.
“Indeed, while the SDMS has been accused of being “discriminatory” and “antiquated,” it seems that modern jurisprudence supports the view held by the SDMS,” he said.
Taklalsingh also claimed Government’s interpretation claim over the issue is discriminatory to his client, as he noted other religious bodies impose similar rules at their educational institutions.
He said: “For example, Hindu students are not allowed to wear certain religious symbols (raksha, tilak, mangal sutra) within the premises of ASJA schools, and it is a well-known fact that teachers of the Hindu faith cannot hold senior positions within Roman Catholic schools.”
“Indeed, these are all permutations of the Concordat and if in fact the State wishes to subject organisations to the expense and scrutiny of legal proceedings, it should not do so in a conspicuously unfair manner by targeting the SDMS but rather engage in an exercise (legal or otherwise) with all denominational boards to demarcate permissible limits of autonomy across the entire education sector.”
Saying the SDMS is also not responsible for the OJT programme, Taklalsingh noted that it merely partnered with the National Training Agency to facilitate work experience for those enrolled.
“Indeed, the right to be enrolled in this State programme cannot equate to a right to be enrolled specifically at the Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu School,” he said.
While Taklalsingh also requested all information related to the lawsuit, he suggested it would be counterproductive.
“Please be advised that the priority of the SDMS and the Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu School is not to participate in contrived legal proceedings but rather to achieve consistent academic excellence and to produce a cadre of independent, patriotic, educated and productive young women of which the entire society can be proud,” he said. The SDMS is also being represented by Seenath Jairam, SC, Dinesh Rambally, Karina Singh, Desiree Sankar and Stefan Ramkissoon.
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