British leaders reluctantly join debate about wearing of full-face veils

Judge's decision forces British politicians to address growing row over the wearing of full-face veils in public by Muslim women

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 September, 2013, 7:55am


The complex debate over the wearing of full-face veils in public has come to Britain, a country that prides itself on the protection of individual liberty.

A judge in London decided Monday that a Muslim woman standing trial on charges of intimidating a witness can attend court wearing her facial veil, which covers everything but the eyes, but must remove it to give evidence so the jury can better evaluate her claims.

That ruling comes a week after a university in Birmingham withdrew a ban on face coverings after protests and accusations of discrimination.

Together the two cases suggest that it is becoming increasingly hard for the government to remain quiet about an issue that has already prompted legislation in continental Europe, most notably in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe.

There, in the name of secularism and public order, and with bipartisan political support, full facial veils were banned in public places two years ago. France also bans the wearing of any religious symbols in state schools.

There is no ban on wearing the veil in public in Britain, and government policy has allowed schools to make their own decisions on what students wear.

In Britain, some members of parliament pushing for a ban on wearing the facial veil, or niqab, in public places argue that they are protecting young women from domestic pressure to wear them, setting them apart from a more secular Western society. Opponents see such laws as restrictions on personal and religious freedoms.

So far the British government has tried to keep a distance from the issue but, in recent days, politicians have been challenged on their views.

Speaking on Monday Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, said that Britain "shouldn't end up like other countries issuing edicts from the centre or laws from parliament telling people what they should and shouldn't wear. This is a free country and people going about their own business should be free to wear what they wish."

Clegg then qualified his statement, saying that there are "exceptions to that as far as the full veil is concerned" - citing security checks at airports and classrooms, where teachers want to address pupils face-to-face.

Earlier, Jeremy Browne, a Home Office minister, said the subject was "a good topic for national debate" and that he is "instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice".

"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," Browne said.

A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said that the government supports the right of institutions like schools to set policies on uniforms and dress codes within the framework of laws that ban discrimination. But Cameron does not support the idea of a general ban.

Critics of the wearing of the veil in public said the government's policy of delegating decisions to the schools, which are often part of the communities affected, has been compromised by the perception that the college in Birmingham was pressured to reverse its ban.

Last week Birmingham Metropolitan College said that it had opted to modify its policies.

"We have listened to the views of our students and we are confident that this modification to our policies will meet the needs of all of our learners and stakeholders," it said.

In Monday's legal ruling, Judge Peter Murphy took steps to accommodate the defendant in the case, a 22-year-old London woman. She will be offered a screen to shield her from public view while giving evidence. But the judge said that her face had to be visible to him, the jury and lawyers.

Talat Ahmed, chairwoman of the Muslim Council of Britain's Social and Family Affairs Committee said in a statement that "recent events will once again generate controversy when in fact what we need is sensible, non-hysterical conversation".