John Lewis is offering the hijab in its school uniform department for the first time.
The headdress is to be sold in the company’s stores in London and Liverpool after it signed contracts with two schools – one which was set up to educate Muslim girls and a second that welcomes pupils from all religious communities.
The hijab covers the head and chest and is worn by Muslim women after the onset of puberty as a sign of modesty in the presence of men who are outside their immediate family.
It is different from the niqab, which is a full face veil and has proved divisive in schools and public life, for example if wearers are giving evidence in court.
There has been controversy over whether it is right for girls attending state schools to wear religious dress rather than the standard uniform.
But the fact that a mainstream retailer is starting to stock the hijab alongside blazers and blouses is likely to be welcomed as a breakthrough by Muslim parents who have so far had to rely on specialist shops.
John Lewis has won the contract to supply uniforms to the Islamia Girls’ School in north-west London, which was established in 1983 by Yusuf Islam – known as the singer Cat Stevens until his conversion to Islam in 1977.
It is selling a white hijab for £9, alongside a teal blazer carrying the school badge, which costs £65, a long ankle-length grey skirt at £40, and other items.
John Lewis will also be supplying the hijab as part of the uniform for Belvedere Academy in Liverpool, which is a non-denominational girls’ school with pupils from a wide range of religious backgrounds.
Belvedere, founded 130 years ago, was the first independent school in the country to become an academy in 2007. The comprehensive has been judged ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.
John Lewis said it is simply responding to demand.
A spokesman for the department store said: ‘We provide uniforms for 350 schools across the country. The school informs us of the items they want us to sell as part of their uniform list.’
Last year, former Lib Dem Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, triggered controversy by calling for a debate on whether women should be banned from the wearing the veil in public places such as schools.
He suggested Muslim girls were being pressurized into wearing the religious dress, saying: ‘We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression.’
His comments were rejected by Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation who said he was ‘disgusted’ by them, adding: ‘Whatever one’s religion they should be free to practise it according to their own choices.’