Catholic school bans scarves for Muslim students
ZAMBOANGA CITY—A Catholic-run school here has caused a controversy by banning Muslim students from wearing the hijab headscarf.
Mehol Sadain, who heads the National Commission on Muslim Affairs, said Sunday he had written to Pilar College in this mixed Muslim-Christian port city to demand that it reverse its policy.
While the school was right to claim it could exercise academic freedom, Sadain said it should do so with “justice and fair play.”
“Pilar College should realize that while educational institutions can formulate their own policies, the same should not run counter to existing laws and state policies,” Sadain said.
The complaint has reached the local city council, which asked the school to reply to the allegations.
Pilar College is believed to be the first in the Philippines to enforce an outright ban on wearing the hijab.
Sadain noted that a Department of Education (DepEd) policy states that Muslim girls should be allowed to wear head coverings in school and may be exempted from non-Muslim religious rites.
Education Undersecretary for Programs and Projects Yolanda Quijano confirmed the DepEd’s policy that allows Muslim girls to wear their traditional headscarves in school regardless of what school they attend.
“She (Quijano) confirmed that that is indeed the policy and it still exists,” DepEd communications officer Tina Ganzon said in a text message Sunday.
Western Mindanao State University professor Alih Aiyub, secretary general of the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines, said the problem caught the public’s attention when a parent brought the matter to City Councilor Melchor Sadain, who then authored a resolution asking the city government to verify with Pilar College if it had such a policy.
“It turned out that they had such a policy. But still we don’t want to make it a big issue at this time because… we are still conducting an internal, low-level dialogue with the school administration,” Aiyub, coordinator of the peace group Salam, said.
Aiyub admitted that they were the ones who advised the parents not to speak to the media “because we don’t want the issue to end up like it’s a conflict between Muslims and Christians.”
But Aiyub said that they advocated religious freedom.
“It is not just about Christian schools imposing such a policy, but also Muslim schools (madrasah) that offer special classes on Arabic for non-Muslims and may have been imposing such a policy,” he said.
“If there are Muslims who don’t want to wear the hijab, it is their right. If there are Christians taking Arabic classes who are not comfortable using the hijab inside the Madaris, it is also their right. What we are opposing is the imposition of a policy where a student is banned if she goes to school wearing a hijab,” he said.
But the school, run by the Congregation of the Religious of the Virgin Mary, who incidentally wears veils, said in its letter to the council that it could not “deviate” from its Catholic leanings.
It said that students from other religions were welcome to enroll but must strictly follow the school’s no-hijab policy.
“Rules and regulations are explained to them, particularly the non-wearing of the hijab or veil,” the school said.
“This is part of academic freedom in connection with which the school has the right to choose whom to teach,” it said.
It was not clear what percentage of students were Muslim but it is fairly common that children from different denominations or religions mix at school in the country, particularly in the provinces.
More than 80 percent of the Philippines’ nearly 100 million population are Catholic, while Muslims form a large minority in the south of the country. AFP, Julie S. Alipala, Inquirer Mindanao; and Dona Z. Pazzibugan
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