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British Debate On Face Veils Fueled By Court Ruling

  • Ron Synovitz

Muslim women wearing full-face veils in London.

Muslim women wearing full-face veils in London.

British Prime Minister David Cameron's government has tried to steer clear of Europe's Islamic-dress controversy -- the debate over Muslim women wearing full-face veils in public or at state institutions like schools or courts.

But a London court ruling this week has rekindled the debate in Britain to a level not seen since 2006, when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair called the veil "a mark of separation."

Indeed, even some lawmakers and ministers from the governing coalition are publicly disagreeing with each other over the issue.

Judge Peter Murphy ruled on September 16 that a 22-year-old Muslim woman from London, charged with intimidating a witness in another case, should be allowed to wear her facial veil while sitting in the courtroom.

But calling the woman's veil an "elephant in the courtroom," Murphy also ruled that she must remove it when she takes the witness stand so that judges, jurors, and lawyers can see her face to evaluate her testimony.

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, argued that it was against her religious beliefs to uncover her face in front of men who are not members of her close family.

Murphy said the defendant can be blocked by a screen from the view of the wider public when she testifies.

But the judge added: "No tradition or practice, whether religious or otherwise, can claim to occupy such a privileged position that the rule of law, open justice, and the adversarial trial process are sacrificed to accommodate it."

Security Versus Faith

Murphy's ruling now serves as a legal precedent for other trials that fall under the British system of Common Law. Murphy says he hopes the British Parliament or a higher court will issue a definitive ruling on the issue "sooner rather than later."

Europe's Islamic-dress controversy has led to divisive political arguments and legal bans in countries like France and Belgium, where it is illegal for women to wear full-face veils in public.

It is a debate that pits arguments for antiterrorism security measures and secularism against individual liberties.

It also puts the advocates of religious freedom and freedom of choice at odds with those who see the Islamic veil as a symbol of the cultural oppression of women.

Jeremy Browne, the British minister of state for crime prevention and reducing antisocial behavior, says the government should contemplate a ban on the veil in order to protect some young Muslim women that he says are being forced to wear it against their will.

Browne -- a Liberal Democrat -- told Britain's "Daily Telegraph" newspaper on September 15 that a ban on the veil is a "good topic for national debate."

Sarah Wollaston, a member of parliament from the Conservative Party, which is in the governing coalition with the Liberal Democrats, has called for a ban on face veils in schools and colleges.

Wollaston told Reuters after the September 16 ruling that she consider the Islamic veil to be a symptom of bias against women.

"I think it's time for women to make a clear statement that, actually, real empowerment for women comes from being able to fully communicate in society," she said. "Not from, I feel, regressive attitudes that actually say that women should be hidden from view."

But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said he disagrees with state-mandated dress codes.

"Soon people will say we should be stopping people wearing a cross on their necklace round their neck," Clegg said. "We are a free country where people are free to express who they are, what their identity is, what faith and what communities they belong to."

Clegg qualified his statement, however, saying there are "exceptions" to the rule when it comes to the full veil -- such as security checks at airports or classrooms where teachers need face-to-face contact with students.

'Targeting' Muslim Women?

Mohammed Shariq heads the Ramadhan Foundation in Britain -- an organization aimed at helping young Muslims in Britain and fostering interfaith dialogue. He argues that the right to wear a veil should be considered a religious freedom.

"If you believe in liberalism, if you believe in individual freedom, then you should believe that all people irrespective of their faith, irrespective of their gender, should be free to practice their faith and choose how to dress," he said.

But Shalina Litt, a Muslim woman who chooses to wear a full-face veil in public, told RFE/RL she thinks the September 16 court ruling was a fair decision.

"I think it's a good one. I think it's a just one," said Litt, a community-radio presenter in the British city of Birmingham. "It's a balanced one because he's preserved her freedom of choice and, where it is a necessity for her to lift her veil, that has been explored. So, at the same time, she is able to exercise her religious beliefs to their full capacity by having a screen there. That's great."

Nevertheless, Litt said she is bothered by the idea of a national debate in Britain that singles out one religious group and focuses on its values.

"It's unfortunate that people target the Muslim woman and the veil, seeing as there is only a minority of Muslim women who are practicing that aspect of Islam," she said. "In reference to MPs that are bringing it up, everybody has their opinion. If it's going to become a national debate then I think it is a natural progression of society trying to understand something."

Murphy's court ruling comes just a week after a college in Birmingham overturned a campus-wide ban it imposed against face veils. The ban was overturned after a series of protests against it and accusations of discrimination.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Cameron says Britain's government supports the right of institutions such as schools to set their own policies on uniforms and dress codes within the framework of antidiscrimination laws.

With additional reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP