Fionola Meredith: Methody's right to look again at its uniform code
Small steps are crucial if our society hopes to win the battle against intolerance,writes Fionola Meredith
Imagine being harangued and harassed when you're walking along the street just because of the way you look. For most of us that's unthinkable. For Muslim women living in Belfast that's often the daily reality.
The veil with which many cover their hair can mark them out as targets for vicious, cowardly, ignorant people to abuse. Some have even had their veils tugged off their heads.
What kind of witless excuse for a human being would do that to another person?
Would they knock the hats off the heads of female worshippers at a Free Presbyterian church, where women routinely cover their hair? You bet they wouldn't.
So why vent their thuggery on such a small, vulnerable and barely visible part of our local population?
While Muslim men may be less obvious to passing bigots on the street, they too are frequently on the receiving end of verbal and physical attacks or criminal damage to their property.
Worst of all, Muslim kids are the subject of bullying and name-calling, told to "go back where they came from", even when they were born in the UK.
That's just heartbreaking - if you have a heart worthy of the name.
A research study by the Institute for Conflict Research, commissioned by Belfast City Council, found there had been at least 320 hate crimes against people from a Muslim background over the past five years.
But that's just a tiny fraction of the whole since, as the report acknowledges, most hate incidents involving Muslims were not reported to the PSNI.
Here's the most tragic part: the report said the fact that many victims did not notify the PSNI was "in part due to a lack of trust, a belief that nothing can or will be done, or a sense that such incidents were normal".
What a damning indictment of our society: victims of religiously motivated hate crimes think that there's no point in going to the police because to be abused in Northern Ireland is perceived as a normal, everyday happening.
We already know that we have a big problem with engrained religious and racial prejudice.
Last year's Life and Times Survey showed that more than half of people questioned would not willingly accept a Muslim (52%) as a relative if they married a close member of their family.
Some 47% of people would not willingly accept a Muslim as a close friend and 25% of people would not willingly accept someone from an ethnic minority as a colleague at work.
That's a shockingly ugly face, contorted with bitterness and prejudice, that some of us are holding up to the mirror.
Which is why I found it especially heartening to learn that Methodist College in Belfast, one of the city's leading grammar schools, is to review its uniform regulations in an attempt to make life easier for pupils from certain religious groups, as well as transgender pupils.
What a humane, enlightened and very welcome decision.
Scott Naismith, Methody's principal, said that the school's community was changing and it was important to accommodate the needs of its increasingly diverse range of pupils.
He said that there were already some youngsters being permitted to wear ankle-length skirts or headscarves, while others were allowed to wear the uniform of the gender that they identify with, rather than their biological sex. Sounds like such a little thing, doesn't it? Tweaking the uniform policy so that schoolkids who wish to wear a veil, or wear a skirt instead of a pair of trousers, can be allowed to do so without infringing the school's dress code.
Some will yap and moan about Methody's decision to undertake this review, claiming that it's an act of political correctness. Nonsense.
This is about making small, practical changes to make minorities and people who don't come from the mainstream feel more comfortable and accepted in this society.
It's about saying: "You matter just as you are. You deserve to be recognised, respected and cared for."
The effects can be profound. These little changes can make a real difference, slowly chipping away at that calcified lump of dumb, racist hatred which defiles our society.
If your daughter is best friends with a girl who wears a headscarf in school, then down the line you're going to be a lot less likely to have a blue fit if your son announces he's marrying a Muslim woman, aren't you?
Methody is showing us all a way forward. Gestures don't have to be huge to be powerful.