The veil: where will it end?

VeilBy LSS member Sadikur Rahman *

In starting this blog I will say straight off that this is not the view of the LSS. These are my personal opinions and a comment from a passionately secular point of view about the news items of the day. Neither is this a thorough legal analysis of any of the issues but more a discussion of the interplay between law, secularism and current affairs. Mostly it may seem like a stream of consciousness – having a moan about what these days seems to be the constant erosion of secular values.

It is no coincidence however that I have chosen this week to write this blog post. I have to say I felt disheartened by two news stories from last week.

The first concerns the news that a trial judge at a criminal trial has agreed to come to a compromise over a defendant wearing the niqab (full face covering) whilst entering a plea at a trial. The judge accepted that the defendant could reveal her identity – i.e. remove the face veil – to a female officer prior to the trial to confirm her identity. The judge had initially said she would have to remove the veil but then seemingly backtracked.

The second story concerns a Birmingham college initially insisting that all those on its premises uncover their faces, whether that be veils, helmets or hoodies, for security reasons. After an outcry and a very quickly planned campaign and petition against the plan, the college backtracked and has said veils will now be allowed.

Some of the coverage of the stories are here and here.

The common theme in both cases is an initial policy or rule (and in the case of the criminal trial, a natural justice point of the judge being personally satisfied as to the identity of who he is sentencing or trying), which was meant to apply to everyone equally, but then because of a backlash the policy has been overturned specifically to justify the religious sensitivities of one particular group.

These two incidents raise more questions than answers. It seems to me they show that secular values and institutions such as courts and colleges are becoming battlegrounds in a clash between an extreme form of religious observation, freedom of religion, and laws and policies that ought to apply to everyone equally. On these occasions those seeking special privileges because of their religion have won out. We should be clear about what rights have been won here. It is the right of a Muslim woman to completely cover herself, including her face, in long flowing robes so that the shape of the body is not defined and so she is not perceivable to the eyes of a man.

The irony is that those campaigning for the freedom to wear the niqab have abrogated the language of human rights, even feminism, to make their point. It is claimed that it is an infringement of their religious freedom and of the right to express their religion. Perhaps it is; indeed it is an infringement if one’s religion says the face has to be covered and a policy states your face has to be uncovered.

But in all societies a balance has to be struck between religious freedoms or personal freedoms, and the necessity to have common laws and values on such issues as gender equality.  It seems to me that the total covering of the face is such an extreme expression of religion (especially when one considers the religious justification for requiring women to wear the niqab) that the balance ought to be struck in favour of the idea of equality between men and women, and in favour of an institution simply trying to have a practical rule on face covering and a law that applies equally to everyone.

There is an added inherent contradiction in Muslim groups campaigning for the freedom to wear what they want to, and in the attempt to co-opt the language of human rights, women’s rights and the right of a woman to wear whatever she wants, when Islam itself does not give its adherents that freedom to do so: it is requirement for a woman to dress in a certain way, to wear the hijab or the niqab depending on their interpretation.

I might be happy to accept these arguments in favour of freedom of religion if the logical consequences of this were happily accepted by religious groups. Surely it would mean that if someone’s religion states they have to be naked on campus, or refuse to show one’s face at all to anyone, or that classes have to be segregated, then all of these must be accommodated. I look forward to seeing the first openly homosexual person teaching in a Muslim school. If this was the outcome I might be willing to accept the arguments from the freedom of religion point of view, but I suspect that this will never be the end result. In courts or schools, say during exams, will someone always be required to be on standby to accommodate someone who does not want to show their face? How much will this cost, and will this lead to more and more court adjournments?

A further logical outcome of this trend seems to be to accept that younger children can attend school in full niqab, or to accept that a teacher can teach a class wearing full niqab (see the Aishah Azmi case where so far the courts have not allowed this) or the opposite: that a class teacher can wear shorts or a bikini and teach in class as long as they claim it is their religious belief. Will those campaigning for the niqab accept these scenarios? I suspect not.

But to follow the logic of the advocates of the niqab, where do we draw the line? If religious belief trumps everything else then why shouldn’t a young child attend school in full niqab or a teacher teach in a bikini if that is one’s religious belief? Most people – religious and non-religious, Muslim and non-Muslim – would agree that neither is acceptable from a common sense point of view, making it abundantly clear that religious belief cannot be the arbiter of these policy decisions.

Surprisingly, it may be the case that if the college had stuck to its policy and not been worried about legal challenges it may have been legally in the right. The case of Shabina Begum v Denbigh High School found that a school was within its rights to insist that a schoolgirl remove the full face veil. Although it concerned uniform policy in a secondary school rather than at a college, it makes for very interesting reading.

Both of these stories came out in the same week that in France the Government robustly reiterated its secular values. A statement was posted in all school buildings that no religious symbols whatsoever are allowed. Of course in France they have banned the niqab in public as well.

I do not agree that niqabs in public should be banned and would not favour any such ban. It is of course a personal matter for the person concerned. Any plan to ban it completely as in France and as proposed in some other European countries would be a fundamental breach of personal rights. The state should not be telling people what they can wear. However, when it comes to public institutions, such as schools, colleges and courts then surely that position changes since most institutions do have dress codes or other rules that apply to everyone for good reason. There is no good reason why a religious person should be given special dispensation to not abide by that policy. Someone would not be able to avoid wearing a particular uniform if it was simply on the basis of a political view.

There was a time in the UK when very few women wore the hijab let alone the niqab, and amongst Muslim women there was no clamour to be allowed to do so. Since the 1990s and because of the increasing influence generally of more literal or stricter interpretations of Islam, that has changed and whereas previously one’s ethnic identity was important, now it is the Muslim identity that is paramount for some. The arguments have gone from girls being allowed to wear trousers (to cover their legs), to hijabs and now niqabs – a slow erosion of secular values and the encroachment of stricter and stricter religious ideals. Where will it end? Will it end?

* Sadikur Rahman was an LSS member from May 2013 to Jul 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS.

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