Sat Defends Decision to Ask Muslim Teacher to Remove Hijab


But Attorney Argues a School is a Public Space

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO (GUARDIAN) – Despite heavy criticism from several quarters, Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) secretary general Sat Maharaj is standing his ground on its decision to deny on-the-Job trainee Nafiesa Nakhid entry to the Lakshmi Girls’ High School with her hijab on Monday.

Maharaj said Wednesday that they have a right to enjoyment of property under the Constitution and as a result also a right to determine how people dress when they go onto the compound.

But not so says attorney Fareed Scoon, who is representing Nakhid.

“A school is not a sacred space, but national space and you cannot impose your system or values on somebody who is utilising together with you what non-sacred space is,” Scoon said in response to Maharaj’s suggestion.

Both men have been speaking out on the issue involving Nakhid, who was given a choice when he turned up at the school on Monday morning dressed in a hijab. She was told at a meeting with the school’s principal, vice principal and dean, whom she said is also a Muslim, that she could stay but would need to remove the hijab, or she could leave. She chose the latter option, saying it was possibly the “worst experience” in her 23 years.

The action comes 23 years after Justice Margot Warner delivered a historic judgment 1995 ruling in favour of Summayah Mohammed, a Muslim schoolgirl who was banned from attending Holy Name Convent in Port-of-Spain wearing a hijab. Warner ruled then that Mohammed was entitled to attend a Catholic school wearing the hijab and she was eventually allowed to attend classes. That decision, which was not appealed, allowed Muslim girls to attend private and public schools without discrimination.

In his defence yesterday, Maharaj said, “The girl is not attached to the teaching staff, she came to learn to teach, but she wants to teach us how to dress, we said we have a dress code.”

Nakhid, who graduated with Honours from the University of the West Indies in the field of Mechanical Engineering, was sent to the school to work alongside a teacher.

There is nothing in the Concordat entered into with denominational schools in 1960 which speaks to a dress code. But Maharaj said it was the teachers of the school, which includes Muslims, Presbyterians and Afro-Trinidadians, “who put together the dress code and we approved it.”

The Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago sets out fundamentals rights and freedoms of citizens, with sections 4 and 5 speaking to rights which exist without discrimination by reason of race, origin, colour, religion or sex. It also speaks to the right of an individual to among other things enjoyment of property and the right not to be deprived of these except by the due process of law.

But Scoon said although Lakshmi Girls share a compound with the SDMS, “it is a public institution. It is funded with public funds, its teachers are paid by the public and it cannot legally or morally debar someone wearing a hijab.” He advised Maharaj to review the policies of the school, saying “they are inconsistent with the Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago and from what I understand with true Hinduism.”

Maharaj reiterated that Lakshmi Girls was “doing a favour by saying come and we will teach you how to teach”.

But Scoon countered, “I don’t think it is a one-sided bargain. The school benefits from her experience, she is a graduate who went to give a service, not to be trained, but she is delivering deliverables that the school requires.”

Nakhid said the school requested someone with a science background and the OJT officer with whom she had the interview “called the principal and said I have a background in mechanical engineering and the principal said send her.” She said although the principal was told her name she never asked any questions about whether she wore a hijab. She said the principal admitted in their conversation on Monday that although she was given her name, she could not tell what religion Nakhid was from her name.

Nakhid said she was “traumatised” by the incident.

“I was so shocked. How can you ask a practising Muslim to remove a hijab for a job? Would you ask a nun to remove a habit for a job?” she asked.

Scoon said the Maha Sabha should do the proper thing and “apologise.

“If they do not apologise they probably will be visited with some kind of sanction by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which is the authority to deal with this on the basis of race discrimination religion or otherwise,” Scoon said. – (