An Islamic College in Adelaide has threatened to dismiss its non-Muslim female staff if they don't wear headscarves, as critics say it's wrong to compel women to identify with a religion they don't practice.
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13 Feb 2013 - 6:03 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

An Adelaide school's dress policy has exposed a grey area in Australia's discrimination laws.

The Adelaide Islamic College has long had an unwritten rule that female staff would wear hijab or if they weren't Muslim, headscarves.

The last principal had relaxed that rule. Now the board has reinforced the dress code policy in writing.

The school has been told by its lawyers not to comment. SBS understands one staffer was warned of dismissal if she didn't abide by the new code.

The union says this is plainly wrong.

"People who've been employed at that school for many years have been able to dress modestly without any particular problem, but this redefining under the threat of sacking is quite extreme and we don't agree with it", says Glen Seidel from the Independent Education Union.

"People who have been quite openly employed as not Muslim are being forced to identify within the community as if they are," added Mr Seidel. "There has to be a more sensible way of getting the modesty requirement sorted without the religious identity".

Minister for Education and Multicultural Affairs Jennifer Rankin says this situation highlights a grey area in the legislation.

"Our ambulance officers wear uniforms, our nurses wear uniforms, this is slightly different as in this is a religious school and obviously they have standards they want upheld, so it's an unusual circumstance where we've got a situation allegedly where someone is being asked to wear hijab rather than remove the hijab".

"Whether it's the equal opportunity act in terms of discrimination or the Fair Work Act, I think it's premature to say," said Ms Rankin. "I think it could be a test case in one or two jurisdictions and yet to be clear about which or both".

There are also implications for the school's funding.

"We provide them with something like 23 per cent of their funding, and in that contract obviously it is an obligation to abide by the laws of South Australia," said Minister Rankin.

The school is facing a tricky task, balancing its religious ideals with the individual's right to choose what, if any, religious identity they display.