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The answer to hijab use: common sense

Conor Lenihan, the Minister for Integration, wants the opinion of school principals on the question of the Islamic "hijab", or headscarf, and has written to 4,000 primary and secondary schools seeking their views.

Is this a valuable consultation, or a costly public relations exercise which makes the minister look so awfully, awfully democratic?

"Democracy" is about the citizen exercising his or her vote at the polls; and about the elected administration being accountable to the electorate, and to the Constitution. It is not about doing opinion polls, for which there are perfectly reputable agencies in the private sector.

Surely the broad answer to the hijab question lies in the application of common sense, and also a sense of proportion. And factor into the equation the customs of the country.

In sartorial matters, what is the custom of the country in Ireland?

Basically, there is none. Unlike the practice in the United Kingdom, Ireland has seldom imposed rules and regulations about what an individual may wear (in England, rules about what you may wear to Royal Ascot are now quite stringent; and London clubland still refuses admission to gentlemen who do not wear jackets and neckties).

In clothes, the Irish are an informal people and don't care too much for rules about dress. De Valera, being reluctant to wear a top hat (which represented a discarded upper class), would wear his university robes on formal occasions.

The custom in Ireland is that people wear what they like, and it is left to their own judgment not to break the bounds of decency.

Churches in Ireland -- unlike in parts of Continental Europe -- do not put up signs saying: "Please Do Not Wear Beach Clothes in Church". Most Irish people know, from common sense (and the weather!) that you don't fetch up at a church service in beachwear.

In terms of religious signs and symbols, again, the Irish tradition is that it be left to the individual and the community.

It is not like France, where Republican tradition is rigidly secularist. Schools have been burned down -- certainly in Catholic Brittany -- for displaying a crucifix on the wall.

Every now and then, a row breaks out in a region like the Vendee in western France -- still both Catholic and Royalist in tradition -- because a religious picture has appeared in a classroom. The French secularist state imposes its hegemony, in this respect, quite firmly.

That is why the "hijab" question was so inflammatory in France -- because of the fierceness of the French secular state.

In Italy, the situation is more flexibly interpreted. Italy is also a republic in which church and state are separated, but there is more tolerance for "the custom of the country". If a holy picture of the local saint appears in a post office in Naples, they don't make a federal case out of it.

Each nation-state must decide on these rules and regulations according to its own culture and tradition. Church and State are separated in the Republic of Ireland, but there has always been a crossover in "values", which reasonably accurately reflect the democratic will.

Overall, I would wager, the majority of Irish people would have a "live and let live" attitude to something like the wearing of the hijab -- or even the more forbidding burqa. If Muslims want to wear it, that's their call.

However, there is also another tradition which must be considered: the tradition of schools, institutions and places of employment being free to set their own boundaries of discipline.

If a school has a school uniform, then the principal must be able to enforce the disciplinary code of the uniform. If a place of employment has a dress code, the boss must be able to insist on compliance. A hairdressing salon, for example, may have a standard garment for all employees. So may a hospital. If a business prefers male staff to wear a tie -- to project a specific brand image -- then the boss is entitled to specify that.

The answer, clearly, in the matter of schools, is that each school must decide for itself what the dress code should be. And the principal's word is law: that is the meaning of leadership. That should also be the case for places of work, the law being interpreted according to a sense of proportion and common sense.

There was a scandalous -- and ridiculous -- case in Britain earlier this year in which a young Muslim woman sued a private hairdressing salon which stated that candidates for employment should have trendy or "funky" hairstyles visible to the clients. The Muslim woman did not quite win the right to cover her head as a hairstylist. But she did win several thousand pounds for "hurt feelings", which the putative employer had to cough up.

When I was at my convent boarding school many moons ago, the Mother Superior used to warn of those pupils who "if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile". There always are those individuals who, given a centimetre, will go to extremes, and make demands beyond the sphere of reason. The law should not indulge such plaintiffs.

Does Mr Lenihan really have to spend public money to come up with the answers which are, quite honestly, self-evident to anyone of common sense?

I think not.

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