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i Editor's Letter: The niqab risks becoming a cause célèbre



Just what the debate about a ban on women wearing the veil needs: another white man chipping in his tuppence… Anyway, here we go.

A Muslim woman has been banned from wearing a niqab (full face veil) while giving evidence in court. The judge ruled it is of “cardinal importance” to our adversarial legal system that a jury can see a defendant’s face while they give evidence.

The niqab is a piece of clothing that causes unique alarm. A tiny minority of the 1.4 million Muslim women in Britain wear the veil, and when we interviewed five of them they insisted that they found it liberating – that they chose such modesty as a means of expressing their faith – rather than a symbol of male subjugation. Their main complaint was being called “letterbox” or “ninja”.

If a woman chooses (rather than is coerced) to wear the niqab while talking to me, fine. No harm in judging someone on what they’re saying, rather than on their appearance as well. But I agree with Shaista Gohir, who chairs the Muslim Women’s Network, that “there are circumstances where the face should be seen – pupils and teachers in schools, and in the courtroom when giving testimony or being questioned. Communication without any barriers is paramount in these situations.” Add to that banks and airport security.

Perspective is important, though. Women wearing the niqab are not running amok, robbing post offices and pushing the infirm off their mobility scooters. The number of contentious cases is small, and legislating against the veil risks transforming it into a cause célèbre – look at the riots in France.

Meanwhile, if women who wear the niqab feel misunderstood, it’s time for more of them to speak out.


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