Shekinah, top centre, says she feels 'prouder than ever' to wear the headscarf

An Irish family at the centre of a nationwide dispute over the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in schools has accused Ireland's government of repressing minority rights while "flaunting itself as the bastion of democracy".

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Liam Egan, whose daughter's desire to wear the headscarf to school last year sparked the debate, said: "It is time the world witnessed the true face of Ireland.

"The issue of the hijab [Islamic headscarf] is a reflection of how Ireland treats its minorities.

"It has silently repressed Muslim rights while flaunting itself as the bastion of democracy for far too long."

Egan and his wife Beverley, asked that their 14-year-old daughter, Shekinah Egan, be allowed to wear the hijab to Gorey Community School in Wexford, near Dublin, in September last year.

'Catholic ethos'

Most secondary schools in Ireland have allowed it to be worn to date, provided the colour is consistent with the school uniform. 

Shekinah's school board of management granted permission for her to wear the clothing, but the principal referred the question to the department of education, requesting an official policy for all schools in Ireland.

The department did not provide any further guidance, saying existing guidelines, which leave the wearing of the hijab to the discretion of individual boards of management, still stands and Shekinah was allowed to continue wearing it.

The issue became widely publicised in the national media and Egan claims that, as a result, several schools have moved towards banning the hijab, with one school in Dublin stating it violates the country's "Catholic ethos".

A spokeswoman for the ministry of integration said it had consulted schools and interest groups over the summer at the request of the minister for education.

"They have come to a consensus on the matter and the report is at official level. A statement will be issued shortly," she said. 

In the Irish capital on Wednesday, the ministry will also host a national debate on the integration of immigrants.

'Not an immigrant issue'

The issue follows similar controversies on the wearing of the hijab across Europe, most recently in France, Britain and the Netherlands.

While most of the people in Muslim communities affected by the issue in other parts of Europe have been immigrants or the children of immigrants, the Egans are a native Irish family who have converted to Islam.  

Just under one third of all Muslims in Ireland are native Irish, according to the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI) in Dublin. 

"This is not an immigrant issue," says Egan, who converted to Islam at the age of 28.

"It's about freedom to practice religious beliefs. People say we should assimilate, but I was born in Wexford - I am Irish and Muslim. We should not follow the lead of France, where there is no tolerance.

Critics of the hijab says its wearing in schools violates 'Catholic ethos'

"It shows double dealings to a certain degree. For the school in Dublin to now use the Catholic ethos is a pretext – Catholic women used to wear a headscarf whenever they entered a church up until 20 years ago. So it's not a new thing here in Ireland."

Beverley McKenzie, Egan's British-born wife, says the government now treats the family as if they are foreigners.

"It's like asking Irish people to develop some sort of mandate which tells them how to integrate into their own society when they already know how to," she said.

The couple have helped set up the Irish Hijab Campaign group to lobby for the right of female Muslim students to wear the hijab.

The group says it wants Ireland "to allow, protect, and normalise the hijab, so it becomes part of the uniform, in consultation with other parents".

National debate

The issue has sparked fierce debate across the country, through extensive media coverage and statements released from the two main opposition parties.

Ruairi Quinn, a spokesman for the Irish Labour party, told the Irish Independent newspaper that immigrants who come to Ireland "need to conform".

"If people want to come into a Western society that is Christian and secular, they need to conform to the rules and regulations of that country," he said.

Quinn believes children in public school should not wear the headscarf

"Irish girls don't wear headscarves. A manifestation of religious beliefs in such a way is unacceptable and draws attention to those involved. I believe in a public school situation they should not wear a headscarf," Quinn said.

His position was backed by Brian Hayes, from the opposition Fine Gael party, who said it makes "absolute sense" that there is one uniform for everyone.

Hayes, Fine Gael's education spokesman, said the wearing of the hijab was not a fundamental requirement to be a Muslim, but more an example of modesty and cultural mores.

Meanwhile, in a column headlined 'Shape up or ship out should be our multicultural message', Kevin Myers, a columnist for the Independent newspaper, supported the opposition's position, saying Quinn had "got it spot on" with his stance.

"The problem lies in how extremists often set themselves up as the sole voice of their 'community'," he said, adding that the British government had learned this best.

"Indeed, the quickest way to get an invitation to 10 Downing Street is to call oneself the leader of the Muslim community of Loamshire; and in between praising 'martyrdom operations', you'd soon collect a knighthood or even a peerage," Myers wrote in June.

However, public criticism has failed to discourage Shekinah from wearing the hijab.

"I feel prouder than ever ... it's brought me more courage and knowledge as to why I wear it," she says.

"This year I've made more friends than I did last year. I think it's because I've showed people who I am. I'm quite happy with that."

Source: Al Jazeera