BBC News

Viewpoints: Should full-face veils be banned in some public places?


A Muslim woman can stand trial wearing a full-face veil but must remove it to give evidence, a judge ruled on Monday. It comes as a Lib Dem Home Office minister called for a debate on girls wearing veils in some public places.

Jeremy Browne said he was "uneasy" about restricting freedoms, but urged a national debate on the state's role in stopping veils being imposed on girls.

His comments came after Birmingham Metropolitan College dropped a ban on pupils wearing full-face veils, amid protests.

A controversial ban in France of the niqab, or full-face veil, being worn in public places led to riots in the Paris suburb of Trappes in July.

Below are several viewpoints about the issue.

Shaista Gohir, chair of Muslim Women's Network UK

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.

However, there are circumstances where the face should be seen - for example, pupils and teachers in schools, and in the courtroom when giving a testimony or being questioned. Communication without any barriers is paramount in these situations. Also it is important to show one's face to verify identity for security reasons.

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.

It is unfortunate that sometimes the odd Muslim woman is unreasonable and refuses to remove it. Such attitudes are contributing towards portraying their own faith negatively - Islam is not rigid and is flexible.

I wonder if their stance is really about religious freedom, or about making a political statement? The debate has now become so polarised that those people who didn't care what Muslim women wore are now turning against the veil.

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation

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.

In terms of courts and schools, I think Muslim women can work with those institutions to find a compromise.

The court case today, for example, there's a compromise - she can wear the veil but when she's giving evidence she has to remove it. There has to be compromise on both sides.

[Regarding teacher-pupil facial contact in schools] that's a legitimate concern but in the end, wearing a full Muslim veil does not restrict the ability of Muslim teachers to carry out their jobs.

For students as well, it's working perfectly fine and has done for so many years.

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.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

The issue of full-face veils in schools and colleges is slightly different to the question of wearing full-face coverings in public generally. While schools and colleges understand and are sensitive to dress requirements for students from particular religious communities, including the Islamic head covering, it is widely understood that teachers and students require full eye contact in the classroom. For that reason, in most cases you would not expect to see full-face veils in schools and colleges, both for teachers as well as students.

However, many schools and colleges have students from a wide variety of faiths and backgrounds which adds to the richness of their communities.

In making decisions about uniform, heads and principals will take into account relevant legislation as well as the ethos of the school and the local circumstances, including discussion with local community groups and parents where there are specific issues.

Parents of course, must be fully informed about the dress requirements and should be consulted over changes.

This is why decisions about dress code are the responsibility of individual heads and principals and their governing bodies, and should remain so.

This is not a matter which requires central government regulation, because heads and principals must have the flexibility to work with parents and local communities in making these decisions.

Stephen Evans, of the National Secular Society

There are understandable and legitimate concerns about the wearing of the burka or niqab, particularly regarding what it symbolises, its role in the subjugation of women and its potential to hinder a woman's ability to communicate and integrate within civil society.

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.

That said, religious freedom isn't absolute and it should be limited proportionally in response to legitimate security concerns. Where there is a reasonable, legal justification, I would fully support the right of public institutions to implement their own polices restricting face coverings. It is also perfectly reasonable and appropriate to protect young girls from being compelled to wear the burka or niqab by prohibiting it in our schools.

Ameena Blake, vice president of the Muslim Association of Britain

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?"

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?

Food for thought but in all, it is important for us stand up for maintaining the rights of any individual to dress the way they please; whether Muslim or not.

Dolan Cummings, of the Manifesto Club

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.

The only legitimate reasons to insist someone reveal her face are practical, such as the need to prove her identity in court or at an airport. Similarly, a head teacher might reasonably believe it's important for teachers to show their faces to the children, but this is a professional judgement about what's required to teach effectively, and not an authoritarian one about what kind of dress is 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.

Many of us find the practice disturbing and regard it as backward, but that's no justification for banning it.

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

A blanket approach would not take account of the complexities of modern society or the specific circumstances of certain aspects of modern life - what may be required in a police station or court room would be wholly different to that required in a school. Even the different types of schools may well have different requirements based on their location, the school community or religious ethos.

Our advice to schools builds on the existing legal decisions on the subject as well as Department for Education guidance, all of which are clear and state that religious requirements do not provide a trump card against other considerations.

Religious requirements to wear a veil or a headscarf are a factor which must be given due consideration by the decision maker, in our cases school governing bodies, alongside other factors relevant to that school's particular circumstances.

Those factors will change in line with the particular circumstances, and will often take into account what other lesser measures may be put in place to still provide substantial compliance with any religious requirements.

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.

More on this story

  • Muslim woman must remove veil to give trial evidence