x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UK debate rages over demands for a niqab ban

Opponents of a ban on the niqab say such a move runs against a long British tradition of individual liberty and religious freedoms.

LONDON // British Muslim groups have criticised supporters of a niqab ban amid a growing public debate on the issue.

A government junior minister called for a ban in schools and public places and the UK biggest-selling daily newspaper, The Sun, said the niqab should be banned in schools, hospitals, airports and banks, though not on streets or in parks.

Jeremy Browne, a minister of state at the Home Office in the coalition government, said that while he was “instinctively uneasy” about restricting freedoms, Britain needed a national debate about the niqab.

He is the first Liberal Democrat to join a growing list of Conservative Party politicians who want at least a partial ban.

Mr Browne’s remarks will “generate controversy when in fact what we really need is a sensible, non-hysterical conversation”, said Talat Ahmed, chair of the social and family affairs committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, an umbrella group of British Muslim organisations.

“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.”

The argument about the niqab was stirred last week when a judge ruled that a Muslim woman had to show her face in court when giving evidence, and a university in Birmingham, Britain’s third most populous city, rescinded a ban on the veil.

Advocates of a ban say the niqab is not only a potential security risk because people cannot be identified, but a symbol of misogyny that also creates a sense of “separateness” at odds with efforts to integrate.

Opponents say a ban runs against a long British tradition of individual liberty and religious freedoms, and Muslim activists worry about the effect remarks such as Mr Browne’s can have on a sometimes fraught public discourse about Islam and Muslims.

It is something that ought to be a minor issue but is being promoted by people with a “very negative view” of Islam, said Shaista Gohir, chair of the Muslim Women’s Network-UK, which links Muslim women’s organisations across Britain.

“The niqab is worn by a tiny minority and there are far more important things – the economy, unemployment – to debate in Britain today.”

Ms Gohir supports a woman’s right to wear what she wants, but said there were situations where it was incumbent upon people to show their face. The answer could not be legislation, she said, as advocated by Mr Browne and The Sun, but nor should those who wear niqab be stubborn.

“I think most women who wear the niqab would show their faces when required, as a means of identification in banks or airports. Those who are stubborn about it do all Muslims a disservice. Islam is a flexible religion.”

The issue resurfaced last week after Judge Peter Murphy ruled that a woman on trial in a London court for intimidating a witness should remove her face covering when giving evidence, though she could wear the niqab in court at other times.

Ms Gohir believes the judge was right. She also supports the rescinding last Thursday of a ban on the niqab by Birmingham Metropolitan College.

“You’re paying to go to university. You’re an adult. You should be able to wear what you want,” she said.

It was a senior member of the former Labour government who sparked the original British debate about the niqab seven years ago.

In 2006, Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the Iraq invasion, told his local newspaper that he preferred to talk to women whose faces he could see. He later called for the veil to be banned. In 2010, however, he changed his mind, publicly apologised and said he had not meant his comments to create such a “scale of publicity”.

That year, France instituted a ban on the niqab that still rankles with some French Muslims.

In July, a police check on a veiled woman in a Paris suburb during Ramadan sparked hours of rioting, with one building torched and a police station surrounded by angry protestors.

okarmi@thenational.ae