Beyond the veil: What happened after Rebekah Dawson refused to take her niqab off in court

The case of a female defendant who refused to remove her niqab vanished from headlines. But what happened next is significant

If your memory is sufficiently jogged, you may recall the recent case of a female defendant who refused to remove her full-face veil in court. It prompted a predictable outbreak of public indignation and liberal soul-searching. The question boiled down to this: could, or should, an English court accommodate a woman who hid her face, citing religious precepts, in a country where the face and facial expression are regarded as key to identity?

But the case soon vanished from the spotlight as did the outrage. So you may not know what happened next. In fact, the case had a double sequel – first, at London’s Blackfriars Crown Court where the veiled woman was tried for intimidating a witness, and then, just a couple of weeks ago, at the Old Bailey. The link between the two cases was not highlighted, an omission that suggests to my suspicious mind that the powers that be did not want to make a big deal of it, lest the result prompted some unwelcome joined-up thinking.

This, though, is a single story in two parts. Part one opens at Blackfriars Crown Court in early February. The courthouse is a solid civic building of a certain age, now anachronistically marooned between the multiplying loft apartments and galleries of the Thames riverside and the patchier regeneration to the south. Little knots of smokers – casually dressed service staff and defendants’ families, so it seems – congregate on the steps; barristers come and go in their wigs and gowns. It is a curious mix.

You pass through a security arch to enter; a uniformed guard checks your bag. The pace, at 10 in the morning tends to the leisurely. Surveying the court lists, I became aware of a rather large female figure just a few feet away, and waiting. She was dressed head to toe in black; only her eyes were uncovered – to see and be seen. And as I looked, without trying to, I realised that this was she: the young woman who had refused to remove her face covering in court; the young woman who was on trial, but not for that.

Rebekah Dawson, 22, was charged with intimidating a witness and was on trial jointly with her brother. In preliminary hearings, Judge Peter Murphy had ruled that she could keep her face covered while in the dock, but that, if she testified, the veil would have to come off. Judge and jury needed not just to hear her words with their own ears, but to see her demeanour with their own eyes.

This compromise, itself not without controversy, necessitated a strange little ceremony. At the start of the day’s proceedings, and after each break, a court official would have to enter the witness box and declare under oath that she had personally checked the defendant’s identity and could confirm that it was, indeed, Rebekah Dawson. Meanwhile Dawson herself sat, still as a black pillar, on one of many rows behind the plate glass of the dock. Her brother, Mathias, was there, too. 

For a case widely seen as being all about the veil, the trial was in fact very little about the veil, at least overtly. But this does not diminish its significance. In some ways, it was about much more: it was about the extent to which the law of the land holds sway when it crosses paths, and perhaps conflicts, with certain strands of Islam; when the worlds of English law and the mosque collide. 

The actual charge against the Dawsons – one count of intimidating a witness – derived from a brief evening visit Rebekah Dawson had made to the Finsbury Park Mosque in north-east London. A volunteer caretaker employed there claimed that she had threatened him with consequences if he testified in a court case that was pending against her husband. He also claimed that her brother had gone along to back her up.

At the root of the case, so it seemed, lay a dispute between two factions at the Finsbury Park Mosque. One believed that it was acceptable for tourists to be shown around the mosque with their heads uncovered and in Western dress; the other did not. Dawson’s husband was firmly in the latter camp, and when he learned that the caretaker had shown around a group of “improperly” dressed Portuguese visitors, he had gone to the mosque and duffed him up. Dawson’s intervention – a few days after her husband’s arrest for assault – was presented as an attempt to stop the caretaker testifying against her husband.

At the start of the trial, both Dawson and her brother denied intimidation. Mathias tried to distance himself from the enterprise, insisting that he disliked her sister’s husband and rejected his dogmatic brand of Islam. Rebekah’s husband, he said, belonged to a group of vigilantes who patrolled areas with large Muslim populations, calling for strict observance of Sharia “law” and instructing women to cover up. Until she met and married him, Rebekah had been a normal teenager and a diligent college student. 

Further details about the Dawson siblings became public after the trial. Their parents, it emerged, were West Indian immigrants who ran a strict, Christian household. But this had not prevented the father from turning to drug smuggling to escape financial difficulties. Nor had it prevented both children from embracing Islam in their late teens – though it was only when Rebekah took up with her future husband that she had taken to wearing the full-face veil.

The relevance of that background to what happened can, and probably will be, debated. But the court proceedings offered several disturbing glimpses of how the law of the land can be compromised. For a start, it was only thanks to the determination of the part-time caretaker at the Finsbury Park Mosque that the two related cases – the assault committed by Rebekah Dawson’s husband and her alleged attempt to pervert the course of justice – came to court at all.

As the caretaker told it, when he first tried to report the assault to the police, they declined to institute proceedings. It was only when he made a second complaint that he was heeded. And this raises a serious question. Left to themselves, might the police have perhaps preferred to leave the mosque to its own devices, even if there was evidence of a crime under English law – sufficient evidence, as later transpired, to have Rebekah Dawson’s husband imprisoned for assault?

Without the caretaker’s resort to English law, Dawson’s husband would not have been taken into custody and she herself would have had no need to go to the mosque with her threat. There would have been a chain of impunity, which accepted might as right, and left “law” enforcement in the hands of bully-boy religious enforcers. And would this have been an isolated case?

Here is also where the face comes back in. At Blackfriars Crown Court, the mosque caretaker testified from behind a screen. He alleged that the man who accompanied Rebekah Dawson to the mosque tried to conceal his face with his hood. Rebekah, as always, had worn her niqab. Identity was key to this trial. Yet one of the defendants was permitted to have her face covered. From time to time, I glanced back, as the evidence was being heard, to Dawson’s impassive figure behind the glass, and tried to detect the slightest flicker from her eyes. Nothing.

It may be, as the judge ruled – and reiterated in his summing up – that you are free to dress as you please in a British court of law, so wearing a niqab is no big deal. But in a case, and in a culture, that relies so much on facial expression and personal identity, should the freedom to wear what you like include the freedom to cover your face? Is this not a concession to tolerance too far?

To be fair, Judge Murphy’s ruling pertained to this one case, and he has asked that Parliament consider whether there should not be a more general ruling. The answer to that should be beyond doubt: absolutely, there should. We do not have to go as far as France, and ban face-coverings in all public places, but in a court of law – an English court of law – is it not self-evident that faces should be visible for justice to be seen to be done?

There are downsides, of course. At her trial, Rebekah Dawson solved the problem of having to remove her veil to testify by declining to give evidence in her own defence. As Judge Murphy told the jury, they would have to decide whether she had simply exercised her right not to testify, or whether she refused to testify because it would entail removing her veil. He said they should draw no conclusion about her guilt or innocence from her choice. 

And it could be argued that requiring all female defendants, plaintiffs or witnesses, to turn up in court, let alone testify, with their faces uncovered, would deter some women from seeking justice through the courts at all, casting them instead on the mercy of the mosque. It might also keep other cases, including this one, out of the British courts altogether. There would then be the risk of even more separation than currently exists between those areas ruled by the law of the land and those where the mosque holds sway.

The complexities of this case were not over extended to the last. After more than 10 hours of deliberation, the jury was still divided – six against six. With the prospect of a retrial before her, Rebekah Dawson decided to plead guilty, while agreeing also to a plea bargain that secured her brother’s acquittal.

But her exposure to the British judicial system was far from over. Indeed, it soon emerged that the trial at Blackfriars Crown Court had been little more than a sideshow. The proceedings that awaited were shorter and simpler, but they also cast the first trial in a more menacing light. While still awaiting sentencing in the intimidation case – she eventually received six months in prison – Rebekah Dawson was up for trial with her husband at the Old Bailey. There had been hints through the Blackfriars case that something else lurked in the background, and there were details, such as Dawson’s husband’s name, that could not be reported. It now became clear why.

Her husband, Royal Barnes, was charged with three counts of disseminating a terrorist publication; she faced one. He was also charged with inciting murder. The so-called “publications” were not, as might have been imagined, aggressive religious tracts; they were videos, posted on YouTube, that glorified the gruesome murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, the British Army bandsman killed in Woolwich last May.

Barnes, it transpired, was an associate of Michael Adebowale, one of those convicted of the killing. Among the videos was one, filmed by Dawson, that showed Barnes hailing Rigby’s killing as making for a “brilliant day” and threatening David Cameron and the British public that his death would not be the last. 

In the end, Barnes and Dawson opted not to stand trial. They pleaded guilty at separate hearings and were sentenced last month – he to five years and four months in prison, she to 20 months. Barnes, it emerged, had been a member of the banned extremist organisation, al-Muhajaroun, and had taken part in demonstrations demanding Sharia “law”.

Given the shocking nature of the videos and Barnes’s greater role in their production, it is understandable that it was his name, rather than Dawson’s, that dominated the news when the sentences were pronounced. Her identity, as the veiled defendant who had caused Judge Murphy such trouble at Blackfriars Crown Court only a few weeks before, went almost unremarked.

Yet it is surely of more than passing interest in raising more questions. One concerns the chronology and the separate pursuit of the two cases: witness intimidation and the terrorist videos. It could be construed from the sequence of events that it was perhaps the – then alleged – involvement of Dawson and Barnes with the videos that persuaded the police to take the mosque caretaker’s assault accusations against Barnes more seriously.

And what – with the benefit of this hindsight – is the mainstream British public and, more to the point, future juries – to make of her militancy about remaining fully veiled in court? Will such attitudes come to be associated with other, more lethal, sorts of militancy?

In his summing up at Blackfriars Crown Court, Judge Murphy instructed the jury to “put aside any feelings about the niqab”. He said this had nothing to do with the trial: “There must be no prejudice because of that.” In future, though, given Dawson’s conviction in the videos case, how realistic will such exhortations be? And will it be right to talk of “prejudice”? Or might juries, if not judges, treat the militant wearing of a full-face veil as suggesting at very least a propensity to become involved in something much, much worse?

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