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Puzzle over wearing veils

Wearing a veil should be seen as a political rather than religious statement, and a reaction against discrimination, a leading Muslim academic has said.

Professor Saeeda Shah, who lectures at the centre for educational leadership and management at Leicester university, said she knew of no religious requirement for Muslim women to wear veils.

"On pilgrimages to Mecca, women are not expected to cover their faces," she said. "However, where there is racism or oppression there will be resistance, and people show this in various ways.

"I believe many girls in this country wear the niquab because of the negativity they are experiencing."

Professor Shah, a faculty dean at the university of Azad Kashmir (the area of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan), said she had found discrimination against Muslims at every level in the UK, including the education system.

She said she had interviewed Muslim students in a number of schools in London and the Midlands with significant Muslim minorities as part of a pilot research project. She said segregation between white and Muslim students in ethnically mixed schools was increasing.

"At one secondary school in London every Muslim student we spoke to said they felt increasingly different and rejected by the majority," she said.

"People would stop talking when they went into the room.

"Some of them had white friends at primary school but at secondary they gradually fell back on their own community and stopped mixing with whites."

She continued:"I believe that there is fear and a lack of understanding between the two communities, and the media is playing a big part in creating this situation. How can you blame white youngsters for not changing their attitudes when you think about what they are listening to?"

Professor Shah called on teachers to avoid stereotypes. She said the idea was dying out that teachers should not bother encouraging Muslim girls to study because they would never have careers. Instead, she welcomed the rising numbers of Muslim girls going to university.

She said that Leicester university was hoping to obtain funding for detailed research on the issue of Muslim identity and school leadership.

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