The Niqab / Veil debate
Dr. Mozammel Haque
The British Home Office Minister called for a debate on wearing a face-veil. Jeremy Browne, the first senior Liberal Democrat, called for a national debate. Mr Browne told The Telegraph: “I think this is a good topic for national debate. People of liberal instincts will have competing notions of how to protect and promote freedom of choice.” He added: “I am instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice. That would apply to Christian minorities in the Middle East just as much as religious minorities here in Britain.”
“But there is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children to be unable to express personal choices about other areas like buying alcohol, smoking or getting married,” said Mr. Browne.
“Do you feel we simply don’t have enough discussion about how women dress? Do you worry that every conceivable angle of what might be considered too modest or immodest has yet to be thoroughly interrogated, even regulated?” enquired Ms. Kira Cochrane, while writing in The Guardian, on 16 September, 2013. She also wrote, “Well, you’re in luck. In the last few days it has become abundantly clear that we are back in the middle of the seething debates over full-face veiling so roundly explored in 2006, when the then leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, declared veils made him “uncomfortable”. If possible, it seems the arguments might be even more heated this time.”
London’s Blackfriars Crown Court ruling
This issue has never really gone away. Back in August, a trial started at Blackfriars crown court, in which a Muslim woman was accused of intimidating a witness. The accused woman wears a niqab – a full-face veil that leaves only a slit for the eyes. Last Monday, the 16th of September, Judge Peter Murphy, sitting at London’s Blackfriars Crown Court, ruled a Muslim woman standing trial could wear a full-face veil but would have to remove it when she gives evidence.
Liberty, which campaigns on civil liberties and human rights issues, said it welcomed the ruling. Director Shami Chakrabarti said: “Credit to Judge Murphy for seeking to balance the freedom of conscience of the defendant with the effective administration of justice. He has shown a sensitivity and clarity that can only further build confidence in our courts in Britain’s diverse communities and around the world.”
Birmingham Metropolitan College decision
The above ruling came just a few days after the reversal of the decision to ban Muslim women from wearing veils on the grounds of “security risk”. The college, Birmingham Metropolitan College, one of Britain’s largest institutes of higher education, had originally said students must remove all hoodies, hats, caps and veils to ensure individuals were ‘easily identifiable’ as part of keeping a ‘safe and welcoming learning environment.’ The ban had come to light when a teenager tried to enrol for an A-level course, to be told she could not wear her niqab, because of security concerns. This decision prompted a huge social media campaign, including a petition signed by 9,000 students and a plan for protest demonstration. The multi-campus college, which teaches more than 9,000 16- to 19-year-olds as well as thousands of adult learners, decided to reverse its decision. Shabana Mahmood, MP has described the college’s decision to reverse its ban on the Muslim face veil as ‘enormously welcome.
Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, said: “This change in policy is enormously welcome. The college has made a wise decision to rethink its policy on banning veils for a group of women who would have potentially been excluded from education and skills training at the college had the ban been enforced.”
Aaron Kiely, national black students’ officer for the NUS, said: “I’m delighted that the petition attracted so many signatures in such a short amount of time, which affirms just how outrageous the decision to enact this policy was.”
Shaista Gohir, chair of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, said: “The complete ban of the face veil on campus by the Birmingham Metropolitan College was a disproportionate response because female students who wear the veil are not only very small in number but were also willing to show their face when required so their identity could be verified.” This was reported by James Meikle in The Guardian, 13 September, 2013.
Those individual negotiations and decisions could have been the end of it, but some MPs are clearly keen for the arguments to continue, wrote Ms Kira Cochrane in The Guardian. Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne, the Home Office minister, has called for a national debate. Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, has suggested that the niqab should be banned in schools and colleges, saying the veils are “deeply offensive” “In my opinion it is time for politicians to stop delegating this to individual institutions as a minor matter of dress code and instead set clear national guidance,”she wrote in The Daily Telegraph, on 15 September, 2013.
BBC conducted several interviews on this issue and below are some of the viewpoints on this issue:
Shaista Gohir, chair of Muslim Women’s Network UK.
Shaista Gohir, chair of Muslim Women’s Network, UK and also member of International Advisory Group of Musawah, a movement for equality in Muslim families, said, “Women and girls should not be pressured to conform – it’s important they make autonomous choices about their lives and their bodies including what to wear and not wear. For this reason I oppose a complete ban of the face veil.”
“The vast majority of the 1.4 million Muslim women in Britain do not even wear the face veil, as it is not considered a religious obligation. The tiny minority that do are probably happy to remove the veil when required,” she added.
Ms. Gohir said, “Everybody should be free how to dress and how to practise their faith”
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation
Mohammed Shafiq, Chief Executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a UK Muslim organisation working to build better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, said, “In a liberal democracy, as we claim we are, everybody should be free how to dress and how to practise their faith. And if there are a small number of women who choose to wear the veil, then they should not be discriminated against and parliament should not pass laws to restrict Muslim dress. That’s very clear if you believe in a liberal democracy and individual freedom.”
“This is political opportunism of its worst kind. These are politicians who don’t really talk to Muslim women. Jeremy Browne, for example, I don’t know how many Muslim women he spoke to that wear the veil and have been forced to [do so]. I’ve not seen any evidence of that – this is politicians trying to look tough on the back of Muslim women,” Mr. Shafiq told BBC.
Stephen Evans, of the National Secular Society
Stephen Evans of the National Secular Society, said, “There are however compelling reasons, both practical and on principle, to oppose attempts to introduce a general ban on the veil – not least a woman’s right to choose what she wears and her right to religious freedom. Forcing a woman not to wear a burka or niqab contravenes a woman’s right to choose in the same way that forcing her to wear one does; both cases represent an attempt to control the woman and dictate how she should express herself.
Are women who wear the niqab really a threat to national security any more than a nun?”
Ameena Blake, vice president of the Muslim Association of Britain
Ameena Blake, Vice-President of the Muslim Association of Britain, said, “To allow the face veil or not to allow the face veil? That is the question on media minds at the moment; and indeed the Muslim community. However, the question seems to hide a more hidden: “To have freedom of rights or to not have freedom of rights?”
She added, “What we, the folk of Britain – a hub of diversity – need to consider, in [deciding] whether we agree with the principle of covering the face or not, is: “Is it ok to remove the right to dress how we please from any individual?” Are women who wear the niqab, or face veil, really a threat to national security any more than a nun or any other individual who chooses to dress in a way that is maybe not the same as the majority of people?”
“There’s no reason spectators in court or dinner ladies in schools shouldn’t cover their faces,” Ms. Blake said.
Dolan Cummings, of the Manifesto Club
Dolan Cummings, Co-founder of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against over-regulation, said, “In principle people should be allowed to wear whatever they want, and it’s not the business of the authorities to dictate what is and is not acceptable.What we should certainly object to is any blanket ban on face coverings, in particular places regardless of context: for example, there’s no reason spectators in court or dinner ladies in schools shouldn’t cover their faces if that’s what they want to do.”
Also one of the organisers of the annual Battle of Ideas festival in London, said, “In a free society, the state must allow citizens to do as they please as long as it doesn’t harm others, and to resolve any problems that arise through negotiation and informal give and take, rather than legislating on the minutiae of everyday life.”
Richard Freeth, education lawyer at Browne Jacobson
Richard Freeth, education lawyer at Browne Jacobson, said, “The recent decision about wearing the veil in the court when giving evidence provides a clear example of the need to balance competing considerations and find a suitable compromise. The same applies in the school context where individual needs must be balanced against other important factors such as the school community, the ethos of the school and the impact on the wider community. This is not a case where one-size-fits-all will produce the right response.”
Salma Yaqoob on Niqab debate
Ms. Kira Cochrane said in her write-up in the Guardian mentioned above, “Salma Yaqoob, formerly a Birmingham city councillor, sounds weary at the idea of another national debate on the issue. “How many national debates have we already had on this?” she says. “It just seems an easy distraction for our politicians. I mean, really? Is this the biggest issue we face in the UK right now? I’m a bit cynical when politicians call for a national debate that has already happened many times over.”
“Such debates have a detrimental effect on Muslim women in general, she says. “The women who do wear the face veils are a tiny minority within a minority, so the thought that they’re any kind of threat to British society as a whole is beyond laughable. But at the same time, [these debates] do, of course, increase the vulnerability of Muslim women as a whole. Time and again, verbal and physical attacks on Muslim women increase when we have these so-called national debates. In emotional and psychological terms, I think it does a huge amount of damage.”
Women who wear the veil “are trying to observe what they feel are their religious convictions”, she says, “but are made to feel that they are somehow imposing on the whole of society and that they are the biggest problem. And, of course, that isn’t conducive to integration, belonging and a positive atmosphere. It doesn’t foster cohesion, I think it does the very opposite, and ironically it actually stifles healthy discussion and debate.”
Mrs. Talat Ahmed of Muslim Council of Britain
Mrs. Talat Ahmed, chair of the Muslim Council of Britain’s Social and Family Affairs Committee, said: “There are few people who wear the niqab, and they should be allowed to wear this veil if they freely decide to do so. All Islamic junctions make provision for necessity and exceptional circumstances.”
She also added, “Nevertheless, this is a personal choice. In Britain, we cherish our right to freedom of religion. I would like to remind those who call for a ban to heed the warning of minister Damian Green who said that introducing such a ban would be ‘un-British’. To do so, would involve embarking on a slippery slope where the freedom to wear religious attire of all faiths would be at risk.”
Muslim Council of Britain on The Niqab in Hospitals
Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has issued a press release on 19th September 2013 on “The Niqab in Hospitals – Let Pragmatism and the Needs of the Patient Prevail”. The press release runs as follows:
The Muslim Council of Britain has been inundated today with media enquiries concerning the veil, this time in hospitals. In response, Dr Shuja Shafi, Deputy Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain and a senior health professional for many years issued the following statement:
“In the latest twist to the ‘moral panic’ about the niqab, or face veil, many are now getting quite exercised by the possibility of a health professional wearing this in our hospitals. That this has become an issue is a surprise to all of us. Having worked closely with hospitals and hospital chaplains, we have never been made aware of any concerns or complaints raised about doctors, nurses or healthcare professionals wearing the niqab. That is primarily because there are few, if any, who do adopt the face veil in hospitals. It is our understanding that Muslim women who do wear the veil are prepared to be pragmatic and take off the veil when required. For example, a basic security requirement for all hospital workers, without exception is to wear photographic ID. This would be a requirement for people who wear the face veil as well.”
Dr Shuja added: “We are puzzled why the face veil is being made more of an issue than it really is. Surely there are greater concerns we should worry about, such as the quality and provision of care we give to all our patients.”