By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, Jan. 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A ruling by Kenya's top court that schools can ban the hijab could lead to Muslim girls — already at risk from practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage — dropping out of school, campaigners warned on Friday.
The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that every school had the right to determine its own dress code, overturning a 2016 judgment allowing Muslim students to wear the hijab in non-Muslim schools, and directed the government to frame guidelines.
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Human rights groups fear some schools will opt to impose the ban, which pertains to both the hijab and the white trousers often worn by Muslim schoolgirls under their skirts.
"I believe there is a large sense of tolerance in most schools, both public and private, in Kenya. But there is a possibility that some schools will enforce a ban," said Demas Kiprono, campaigns manager at Amnesty International in Kenya.
"If this happens, it may affect schooling for Muslim girls. Religious dress is an important issue for some Muslim communities, so the ban may lead to families taking their daughters out of school, or girls may themselves not feel comfortable."
Muslims make up about 10% of Kenya's 44 million people, while Christians account for almost 85% of the population, according to the latest census data available.
Campaigners say Kenyan girls, including those from Muslim communities, already face multiple barriers to completing their education.
Traditional practices such as FGM and child marriage often force adolescent girls to drop out of school, they said, and schools banning hijabs could lead to higher drop-out rates.
"This is a missed opportunity by the Supreme Court to have set a landmark judgment on women's right to privacy and to choose what she wants to wear," said Agnes Odhiambo, senior women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch in Kenya.
"If schools decide to take up the ban, the government must monitor this to ensure it does not discriminate against Muslim girls. This ruling does not promote integration, peace and tolerance in our schools and communities."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla. Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)