Veiled Muslim to deliver C4's Christmas message

Previous occupants of the coveted role have included the late gay icon Quentin Crisp, Ali G, as played by Sacha Baron Cohen, and the parents of the murdered schoolboy Stephen Lawrence. Now this year, a veiled Muslim woman has been invited to deliver Channel Four's Alternative Christmas message.

The woman, whose name has only been given as Khadija, is a freelance teacher and lecturer in Islamic studies from the Midlands who has worn the full veil, the niqab, for 10 years.

Her appearance on the channel's alternative to the Queen's own broadcast at 3pm on Christmas Day, which has been running since 1993, comes after a year in which there have been a series of controversies over women wearing the veil, as well as the recent dispute over British Airways banning staff from displaying crucifixes.

A spokesman for Channel Four said: "The right to wear religious symbols from niqabs to crucifixes, remarks made by the Pope about Islam and the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed have all generated a debate about multiculturalism, secularism and integration, a debate in which British Muslims have played a key role and one that will shape the future of British society.

"Therefore, we believed it was fitting this year the message should be given by a British Muslim woman."

Khadija was found by the Leeds-based production company Chameleon after a month-long search among Muslim communities in the north and Midlands. The company has produced a number of documentaries for Dispatches on Channel Four as well as recent films on young British Muslims and on the background to the 7 July bombings.

The company and Channel Four were last night reticent about disclosing any more details about the woman's identity beyond saying she was in her 30s, born in Zimbabwe and had been living in this country for about 20 years. Christmas Day is also her 15th wedding anniversary.

Channel Four said they were releasing few details because she was reluctant to talk to the media ahead of her message and was a "very modest, very unassuming woman. "

However, a spokesman also said she was "articulate and interesting" while Chameleon described her as "a feisty woman who will deliver a thought-provoking message."

Allen Jewhurst, the producer, said: "We wanted to find someone with their own agenda, an everyone who can articulate the views of British Muslims."

The company said the message would be filmed over the next 10 days at a number of locations.

The niqab, which is Arabic for "full veil", involves covering the face completely, leaving just a slit for the eyes. It is a more severe form of dress than the more common hijab, a scarf covering the head and neck.

Earlier this year, Jack Straw, the leader of the House of Commons, caused a row when he said that it hindered communications.

Last month a Muslim teacher in Dewsbury, who lost an industrial tribunal after she refused to remove a veil when pupils complained she could not be heard, was sacked by the local authority. Her case provoked a furious debate.

The Muslim Council of Britain said that it did not wish to react to the planned broadcast on Channel Four. "It is not worthy of comment," said a spokesman.