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The Veil Debate - September 2013

  • The Triggers
  • Muslim community responses

    Sane Voices

  • Aaron Kiely et al.
  • Sahar al-Faifi
  • Dr Petrina Stevens
  • Teresa May MP, Home Secretary
  • Maleiha Malik
  • Kira Cochrane
  • Tahmina Kazi
  • Shabana Mahmood MP
  • Dan Hodges
  • Simon Jenkins
  • Victoria Coren Mitchell

    Strange Voices

  • Taj Hargey
  • Jeremy Hunt MP
  • Julie Bindel
  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
  • Jack Straw MP
  • Jeremy Browne MP
  • Sarah Wollaston MP
  • Philip Hollobone MP

    The Triggers

    In September 2013, three incidents brought the veil issue back in the headlines – seven years after Jack Straw’s remarks about feeling uncomfortable dealing with niqabi women at his MP surgery.

    The first of these was the objection of a Muslim woman, defendant in a trial, to removing her veil.

    “A Muslim woman must remove her full-face veil when she gives evidence but may wear it at other times during her trial, a judge has ruled. Judge Peter Murphy's compromise ruling, which involves screening her from public view in the court when she is not veiled, will set a precedent for how criminal courts deal with defendants who wear a traditional niqab. The 22-year-old woman from London, referred to in the judgment only as D, says it is against her religious beliefs to show her face in public. She pleaded not guilty to a charge of witness intimidation last week while wearing a veil. Directions for the trial at Blackfriars crown court, due to take place in November, will also prohibit courtroom artists from making any sketch or drawing of the defendant without her niqab. Only the judge, jury and legal counsel will be able to see D's face when she gives evidence.” The Guardian, 16 September 2013

    The second case involved Student Imaani Ali, 17, at the Birmingham Metropolitan College. In September 2013, at the start of the new term, the college authorities ruled that faces had to be uncovered so as to be 'easily identifiable at all times'. Imaani Ali objected on the grounds that this was a breach of her freedoms. Later the College rescinded its ruling

    “On Thursday night – in the face of a huge social media campaign organised by students, a 9,000 name petition and the threat of a lunchtime demonstration, the college said it had decided to modify its stance. The niqab is now unbanned.” The Independent, 13 September 2013

    The third case was the intervention by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP on 19th September argueing that patients at any hospital in the country have the “right” to demand that the doctor or nurse treating them does not wear a veil.” Daily Telegraph, 19 September 2013

    Muslim Community Responses - MCB, FOSIS, IERA

    IERAlaunches campaign 'Secrets of a Muslim woman' Listen, Explore, Ask

    The Muslim Council of Britain's statement issued on 16th September was entitled The Niqab/Veil Debate: Old Prejudices, Same Concerns

    The Muslim Council of Britain today expressed its concern at the direction of the national conversation currently taking place on the niqab, the veil that covers the entire face. This follows last week’s move by Birmingham’s Metropolitan College to reverse a ban on this attire and today's decision by a judge to require a defendant to remove her niqab. This has also led to a government minister to call for a national debate on this issue.

    Mrs. Talat Ahmed, chair of the Muslim Council of Britain’s Social and Family Affairs Committee said: “The recent events will once again generate controversy when in fact what we really need is sensible, non-hysterical conversation. The Minister Jeremy Browne calls for a national debate on the niqab, yet we have been debating this for over ten years now -- if not more. And every time we discuss the niqab, it usually comes with a diet of bigoted commentary about our faith and the place of Islam in Britain.”

    “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”

    "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.”

    Comparing the experience of other countries, Talat Ahmed added: “In Canada, the province of Quebec is attempting to follow France by introducing the ban as well. But the higher virtues of freedom are being demonstrated in Anglophone Canada where a hospital has bravely taken out a recruitment ad featuring a smiling hijabi young woman captioned: ‘“We don’t care what’s on your head, we care what’s in it.’”

    On the question of whether the niqab is an Islamic requirement, Talat Ahmed said: “We recognise that there are different theological approaches to the niqab. Some consider this to be an essential part of their faith, while others do not.

    Even amongst those who do consider the niqab to be an ultimate expression of their faith, there are some who emphasise the need to be practical when there is an essential need to show ones face -- for example, for reasons of security.

    Even amongst members of the Muslim Council of Britain, there are different views on the niqab, and how Muslim women who wear such attire, can make a positive contribution to society. Islamic practices allow for certain exceptions, and in the spirit of being reasonable. That debate will continue, but it must be done and led by Muslim women, who freely decide to wear, or not wear the niqab or hijab.”

    The Federation of Student's Islamic Societies (FOSIS) also issued a statement FOSIS Expresses Outrage at College Niqab Ban on 10th September 2013

    : The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has expressed its deep concern at the decision of Birmingham Metropolitan College to ban the niqab or face veil.

    FOSIS President, Omar Ali said, “This senseless decision is massively divisive and will only lead to an environment in which the rights of many will be disproportionately suppressed. The fundamental rights to freedom of religious expression are at stake here and this sets out an extremely dangerous precedent not only for the Muslim community but for members of all faith backgrounds.”

    FOSIS Vice President of Student Affairs, Ibrahim Ali added, “Without prior consultation of female Muslim students or of key stakeholders, we are extremely concerned that this will act as yet another barrier to accessing further education. We believe that no student should have to choose between their faith and education. Education is a right which, in all free and fair societies, everyone should have access to.”

    FOSIS President concluded by saying, “The responsibility for a college to provide security for students and staff is of paramount importance, however the banning of niqab for this reason is nothing short of a red herring. There is no doubt that in this multicultural hub, the college has acted in a way in which equality and inclusivity have been jeopardised and there is now a need for an immediate reversal of this discriminatory policy. The outrage expressed by students and members of the local community is telling of exactly what impact this will have, especially in light of the alarming private members bill proposed by a conservative MP that would see the niqab banned in public places.”

    The Muslim Council of Britainissued a further statement issued on 19th September following the intervention in the veil debate by the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP. The MCB pres release was entitled The Niqab in Hospitals - Let Pragmatism and the Needs of the Patient Prevail

    :...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."

    Sane Voices: Aaron Kiely et al.

    "...We reject Lib Dem Jeremy Browne's proposal for a national debate on the right of Muslim women to choose to wear the veil and other forms of religious dress (Report, 16 September). This whips up fear and anxiety and undermines all of our rights to pursue our faith, culture, conscience or other preferences, as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. The decision by a tiny minority of women to wear a veil hurts no one's rights.

    The right of each person to dress, worship, pray, eat, or pursue other cultural and religious preferences as they choose has been at the core of the cohesion of our multicultural society and has allowed the integration of waves of migrations from across the globe – Irish, Jewish, Huguenots, Chinese, African, Caribbean, Asian and Muslim people. This issue has been raised before and on each occasion these values that bind British society have been defended against those who use this issue to whip up Islamophobia and hostility towards the Muslim community. It is completely false to claim to be liberating veiled women by excluding them from education, or public places and society in general. Women have the right to wear what they choose. Therefore we call on those of all faiths and none to defend these freedoms and reject such divisive politics..." Letter to the Editor, The Guardian, 19 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Sahar al-Faifi

    "...Allow me to introduce myself. I am a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time. I have formerly been elected as the Wales Chairperson of a national Muslim student organisation and held other leadership roles including working with bodies such as the National Union of Students. I wear the niqab as a personal act of worship, and I deeply believe that it brings me closer to God, the Creator. I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength. People I engage with judge me for my intellect and action; not necessarily for the way I look or dress. Niqab enables me to be, simply, human.." The Independent, 18 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Dr Petrina Stevens

    "Maybe the niqab should be worn by everyone giving evidence in court cases (Woman told to remove veil to give evidence, 17 September). It would prevent judge and jury from making unpreventable assumptions due to a witness's appearance. They could then focus on the evidence and use it more objectively." Letter to the Editor, The Guardian, 18 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Teresa May MP, Home Secretary

    ...The Government should not tell women what to wear, the Home Secretary has said amid ongoing debate over the use of full-face veils. Theresa May said it is for women to "make a choice" about what clothes they wear, including veils, although there will be some circumstances when it will be necessary to ask for them to be removed."...

    Asked if parliament needs to issue formal guidance to courts and schools on whether women should be allowed to wear a veil, the Home Secretary told Sky News: "I start from the position that I don't think Government should tell people, I don't think the Government should tell women, what they should be wearing. "I think it's for women to make a choice about what clothes they wish to wear, if they wish to wear a veil that is for a woman to make a choice." The Independent, 17 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Professor Maleiha Malik

    ...Recent empirical evidence shows that very few French, Belgian and British women wear the full-face veil. Those who do have a range of reasons, and their decision changes with life experiences: sometimes the full-face veil goes on, but it frequently comes off again. Crucially, the first-hand testimony of the women themselves confirms that they are not coerced, but freely adopt the full-face veil....

    In contemporary debates, the full-face veil is frequently presented as a medieval practice. And yet, in a supreme irony, the contemporary European response to the full-face veil can itself be seen as "medieval". Today's debates about, and treatment of, veiled Muslim women are akin to the way heretics, lepers and Jews were talked about and treated in medieval Europe when, according to the historian RI Moore, Europe became a "persecuting society".... The Guardian, 17 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Kira Cochrane

    ...Such debates have a detrimental effect on Muslim women in general, she [Salma Yaqoob] 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.".... The Guardian, 16 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Tehmina Kazi

    ...Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, is similarly unenthusiastic about the national debate idea. "What does need to happen," she says, "is an internal debate within Muslim communities, questioning people who push the rhetoric that the veil is obligatory in Islam – or even those who say it's recommended." These conversations are necessary, she says, but when talk turns, at a national level, to a state ban on full-face veils – a measure that passed into French law in 2010 – "it's completely counter-productive.".. Kira Cochrane reporting in The Guardian, 16 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Shabana Mahmood MP

    "I am shocked to hear that Birmingham Met has banned female Muslim students from wearing the veil. For those that chose to wear the full veil, it is an important article of faith. I would like to know how many students are affected and a full explanation as to why the compromise suggested by students at the College that the veil is removed for security staff to check and verify identity before being put back on was not accepted by the College. "I am deeply concerned that other colleges may follow suit as a result of which increasing numbers of women will be locked out of education and skills training - we must not allow this to happen. Birmingham Met College is a popular and well regarded institution with a diverse student body, which is precisely why I am seeking an urgent meeting with the College to discussion how we can sort this out. "The questions which I am seeking urgent clarification on are:
    What security concerns prompted this policy?
    How many students are affected?
    What are the details of the consultation that was done with niqab wearing students?
    What discussions have taken place with the local authority, the police and other education establishments?
    What discussions have taken place with local faith leaders?" 10 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Dan Hodges

    This morning Lib Dem Home Office minister Jeremy Browne has created a bit of a storm by saying that we need a “national debate” on the topic of Muslim women wearing of veils. His call was echoed by Tory MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, who said that “we must not abandon our cultural belief that women should fully and equally participate in society”. Her colleague Bob Neil said, “I do think we need to have a serious conversation about it.” I respect all of those views. But they’re wrong. The debate about “The Veil”, is neither necessary, nor is it complex. In fact, it’s very, very simple. This is Britain. And in Britain you can wear what you want...

    I understand those who express concern about the cultural implications of veils. Indeed, I share them. My wife and I regularly drive through Stamford Hill to see relatives. When we do, we invariably reflect on the local Hasidic Jewish community, and how great it is that London is so rich culturally. But it’s noticeable that all the women, (and indeed the men), are essentially dressed in the same way. That’s great to look at from the outside, and reflects a strong sense of heritage and identity. Yet it also reflects conformity. And conformity is a bad thing. It stifles personal identity, and by extension freedom. But from my point of view, that’s just tough. If I were to advocate passing a law that said Hasidic Jewish women should be banned from going out unless they’re dressed in bright, vibrant colours, I’d rightly be regarded as having lost my mind. And it’s no different to advocating we should start punishing women who decide to go out in a veil. Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2013

    Sane Voices: Simon Jenkins

    ...The calm answer has to be to deny this as a national crisis. Individuals and institutions should be able to make their own decisions ad hoc. Some authorities, possibly schools and colleges in populated Muslim areas and certainly the justice system, clearly regard obscured faces as a practical problem. They should make their own decisions, consulting and defending them in their local circumstances. The state, and the law, must stand behind such decisions and, where appropriate, support them. But a national debate, a national decision, another France? The game is not worth the candle. 16 September 2013, The Guardian

    Sane Voices: Victoria Coren Mitchell

    ...I had an instinct to take my husband's name when I got married. It felt like a romantic statement of pride, love and permanence, and of doing what's always been done in my family. But I was scared that it might be mistaken for a blow against feminism. Scared that it might be a blow against feminism, or at least disrespectful of it. And nervous that, without the label I'd soldiered under for nigh on 40 years...

    I chose, complicatedly but honestly, to use a range of names for a while: mine, his (ours), and sometimes both at once in the American tradition. I decided to try the long version in the Observer this week, with the feminist defence that a married woman changing her name is, like giving up her job to raise children, oppressive when it's obligatory, but confident and happy as a choice.

    And then it hit me, perhaps more slowly than it's already hit you: that's what women say about the veil, isn't it? That it's a strong and happy choice; that their grandmothers (or young cousins in Saudi Arabia) might not have had that choice, but they do in Britain today and they make it in glad and grateful acknowledgement that it isn't mandatory. Of course, bystanders murmur that they simply don't realise how deeply they are in the grip of the patriarchy that devised the system. Just like some people might say about me. And maybe they're right! Maybe I just think I'm enjoying the freedom to choose my own name, when I'm actually brainwashed by an antiquated patriarchal idea from which others have rightly sprung away. But I know this much: I will never again think that a veiled woman is strange or unknowable. Whether we're both right or both wrong, I will recognise her as very familiar – only, perhaps, having made her choices more decisively than I make mine. And you only need to see someone's eyes to know if they're smiling back. 15 September 2013, The Guardian

    Strange Voices: Taj Hargey

    It is disingenuous for Muslims to claim that wearing the niqab or burka is Islamic. The requirement to conceal the face does not feature anywhere in the Koran. It is an archaic, aristocratic custom originating in ancient Persia that spread to Byzantium and was later adopted by misogynistic Muslim society. Many Muslims have been conditioned to conflate culture with religion and befuddle liberal Britain that this is a principle of religious freedom and human rights when it is neither. It is against Islamic law for masked women to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca or to perform their daily prayers. If women are prevented from hiding their identity at Islam’s holiest shrine, why is it necessary for them to do so here? Britain must join France and Belgium in outlawing all public anonymity. Anything less would amount to sexist discrimination against British men, who are not permitted to conceal their identity in public. Letter to the Daily Telegraph, 18 September 2013

    Strange Voices: Jeremy Hunt MP

    ...The Health Secretary said that he supports the “autonomy” of hospitals to take the decision to ban staff from wearing veils which cover the face. However, he refused to say whether he would support a national ban, insisting that it is a “professional and not political” issue. The Government has now ordered a review of all health service policies on workers’ uniforms. It will ask professional regulators to draw up clear rules so that communication with patients is always given priority over the right of a nurse or doctor to wear a veil. It follows indications from David Cameron that he would support public sector bodies wishing to ban staff from covering their faces. MPs have called for a national debate on the issue.... Peter Dominiczak reporting in the Daily Telegraph, 19 September 2013

    Strange Voices: Julie Bindel

    ...While I would be opposed to legislation to ban the niqab, as I do not think that it is the job of the State to dictate what we can wear, I am deeply aggravated by the casual acceptance — even embrace — of the niqab as an increasingly normal part of British society. Its presence should be challenged as a threat to the freedom of women, not celebrated as a harmless aspect of multi-culturalism. For this is not about a simple article of clothing. It is about a symbol of the relentless subjugation and control of women. Now I accept that the great majority of Muslim men and women in Britain are highly decent people who eschew extremism. But the niqab is a clear, physical representation of a patriarchal culture of a fundamentalist minority that treats women as second-class citizens... Daily Mail, 17 September 2013

    Strange Voices: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

    ...None of our sacred texts command us to cover our faces. Some branches of Islam do not even require head coverings. These are manmade injunctions followed by unquestioning women. We are directed always to accept the rules of the countries we live in and their institutions, as long as they are reasonable. For security, justice, travel, education and health identification is vital. Why should these women be exempt? We Muslims are already unfairly thought of as the enemy within. Niqabs make us appear more alien, more dangerous and suspicious. If it is a provocation for Ku Klux Klan to cover up so they can’t be recognised, it is for Muslims too....

    Some of the bravest human rights activists are Muslim women. Take Tamsila Tauquir awarded an MBE for her charitable work with Muslims and Tehmina Kazi, director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which I co-founded seven years ago. The two of them, with other idealists, have embarked on an “inclusive mosque” initiative, with pop-up prayers in various venues, where men and women, gays and straights, humanists and modernists can pray together. Many others are trying to promote progressive Islam, which fits our times and needs.

    Islamic zealots must fear these developments and want to crush them. Whether they know it or not, fully veiled women are part of this reactionary mission. Our state must not aid and abet them. The judge and the college should not have retreated and handed them this victory. The Independent, 16 September 2013

    Strange Voices: Jack Straw MP

    ...Jack Straw, the former justice secretary, backed the judge’s calls for wider guidance but suggested that he could have gone further. “I think there is an issue about whether she should have to have it [the veil] off the whole way through the proceedings.” Mr Straw caused a row in 2006 after revealing that he asked Muslim constituents in his Blackburn constituency to remove their face veils when speaking to him.

    The Times, 17 September 2013

    Strange Voices: Jeremy Browne MP

    ...Jeremy Browne, a Liberal Democrat, said there needs to be a national debate about whether the state should step in to protect young women from having the veil “imposed” on them. Mr Browne said he is “instinctively uneasy” about banning behaviour, but suggested the measure may still be necessary to ensure freedom of choice for girls in Muslim communities. The Home Office minister is the first senior Liberal Democrat to raise such deep concerns about Islamic dress in public places. A growing number of Conservative MPs also want the Government to consider a ban. The Telegraph, 15 September 2013

    Strange Voices: Sarah Wolloston MP

    ...A Tory MP yesterday urged the Government to ban full facial veils in all schools and colleges because they were ‘making women invisible’. Dr Sarah Wollaston said some women found the niqab ‘deeply offensive’ and should not be accused of being bigoted for criticising them. She made the comments on Twitter following a college’s U-turn last week on banning students wearing veils and before a judge is due to decide today on whether a Muslim woman can stand trial while wearing one. Dr Wollaston, the MP for Totnes in Devon, said: ‘The niqab should be banned within schools and colleges; how on earth do they promote equality when they collude with making women invisible?’ Daily Mail, 15 September 2013

    Strange Voices: Philip Hollobone MP

    ...The proposed laws included a ban on the burqa, the reintroduction of capital punishment, the privatisation of the BBC, a referendum on equal marriage, withdrawal from the EU and the renaming of the August bank holiday as Margaret Thatcher Day. All of these bills have been given space on the parliamentary timetable and, to David Cameron's undoubted glee, will be debated at various points between now and 28 February 2014. Today there are three from Hollobone before MPs: the National Service bill, the European Communities Act 1972 (repeal) bill and, most egregiously, the Face Coverings (Prohibition) bill. New Statesman, 6 September 2013

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