Shortly before lunchtime two figures, swathed from head to toe in black, emerged through the doors of Birmingham’s Metropolitan College flanked by a security guard. “The ban has been lifted - I have got what I wanted,” said one of the girls before disappearing into a nearby Subway sandwich shop.
The teenager, an A-level student who does wish to be named, sparked a national debate this week when she tried to enrol for an A-level course at the Matthew Boulton campus of the city college – home to 35,000 students the majority of them Asian.
She was told that it was the college’s policy not to allow the niqab she was wearing because of fears over campus security. On Thursday night – in the face of a huge social media campaign organised by students, a 9,000 name petition and the threat of a lunchtime demonstration, the college said it had decided to modify its stance. The niqab is now unbanned.
Depending on which side of the argument they were on, the decision to reverse the policy was described yesterday as either a victory for common sense or a humiliating capitulation for the British way of life.
Tory MP for Kettering Philip Hollobone, who has tabled a private members bill that would make it an offence to wear clothing obscuring the face in public, said the change of heart was a matter of “shame” and made the argument for legislation banning the niqab in public more urgent.
The college’s reversal mirrored the decision of Judge Peter Murphy at Blackfriars Crown Court in London on the same day. He had climbed down after initially refusing to allow a woman accused of intimidating a witness to give evidence in a trial unless she uncovered her face.
“People are frightened of standing up and speaking out in this discussion because of political correctness and the intolerant reaction from Muslim groups who jump up and down with fury whenever anyone says that it makes sense for people to go around with their faces perfectly visible to everyone else which is the way human beings were created in the first place,” said Mr Hollobone.
Protest organiser Sabiha Mahmood, 27, a former student at the college and now a photojournalist, said it was important to keep the issue in the spotlight. She said the social network sites around the campaign had been bombarded with racist and Islamophobic comments during the campaign.
“This is a victory for now but we have to make sure it does not happen again in Birmingham or in any other college in the UK. Our primary concern is that this student is part of British society and in this country we allow women to express themselves how they want to. This is a pragmatic and sensible solution,” she added.
The issue opened up a divide in the Coalition government. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had expressed his “unease” at the decision to implement a ban. A spokesman for David Cameron meanwhile said it was up to individual schools and colleges to set their own dress code.
Current Department for Education guidance is that education establishments should act reasonably in accommodating religious requirements whilst safeguarding safety, security and effective teaching under the terms of the Human Rights Act.
It is a fine balancing act. When Islamic dress codes have been tested in the courts, senior judges have ruled against them. In 2007 a 12-year-old girl from Buckinghamshire lost her bid to wear a full-face veil. It followed a similar ruling in the case of a 15-year-old Muslim who had claimed the right to wear a jilbab whilst an employment tribunal also found against a teaching assistant who was told by her school she could not wear a niqab.
Responses in Britain have differed dramatically from France where veils were banned from being worn in state schools in 2004 and outlawed from public places in 2011. This summer there was an outburst of rioting in a Paris suburb when a woman was ordered to lift her veil by police.
Birmingham Metropolitan College’s principal and chief executive Dame Christine Braddock originally justified the stance by outlawing the veil alongside hoodies, hats and caps. She said all should be removed on the premises to allow ease of identification by the security guards who patrol the premises and entrances.
But in its statement announcing a change of mind it said it had been forced to act because of fears that media attention was affecting teaching and learning. “As a consequence, we will modify our policies to allow individuals to wear specific items of personal clothing to reflect their cultural values,” it said.
Students will still need to show their faces to confirm their identity on entering the premises.
There had been growing pressure in Birmingham this week to persuade the college to stand down. Councillor Waseem Zaffer, chairman of the city council’s social cohesion boar, wrote an open letter to Dame Braddock pouring scorn on the idea that the ban was safeguarding the welfare of learners and raising concern over the success rates of apprenticeships taken by those from ethnic minority backgrounds.
“It would appear that learners from some of our most disadvantaged communities and arguably the ones that need the most support are not doing anywhere near as well as learners from other backgrounds – and this saddens me immensely as many of my constituents have an African-Caribbean or Pakistani heritage,” he said.
Labour MP for Ladywood Shabana Mahmood, who had spoken of her “deep concern” over ban welcomed the reversal. ”The college has made a wise decision to rethink its policy on banning veils for a group of women who would have potentially been excluded from education and skills training at the college had the ban been enforced,” she said.
Meanwhile, back at the campus students agreed that the affair had been poorly handled.
“It doesn’t affect us because it doesn’t affect our culture. We would never choose to wear the veil. I have seen two or three girls wearing it – that’s it. But it is their choice. It should not have been banned. It should never have been a big issue,” said one female student wearing a head scarf.
Hala Al Jamal, 18, a health and social worker originally from Palestine said it was important to see other people’s perspective. “Maybe because I am a Muslim I do not find someone wearing a veil to be dangerous. But for other people it could be,” she said.
‘Walking coffins’? The Law in France
France is the only country in Europe to have passed a law that prohibits face-covering in public, be it via niqab, burka, balaclava or helmet. In 2009 President Nicolas Sarkozy, below, compared burkas to “walking coffins” and declared that they were an unwelcome violation of France’s secular values.
An act of parliament was passed in September 2010 and the ban came into effect six months later. Anyone who breaks the law is liable for a €150 fine or a period of “citizenship training”, while forcing someone to cover their face is punishable with a fine of €30,000, or €60,000 if that person is a minor.
A law banning “conspicuous religious symbols” in schools (such as Islamic headscarves and turbans) had been passed in 2004. The ‘burka ban’ sparked protests in Karachi and condemnation from Amnesty International, although senior clerics at Egypt’s Al Azhar mosque, considered the foremost authority on Sunni theology, declared that the burka (a full body and face covering) and the niqab (a face covering where only the eyes are visible) had “no place in Islam”.
Police did not initially act on the law, and the first women were not fined until September 2011.
A group of Pussy Riot supporters wearing balaclavas were arrested in Marseille in 2012, while in July a police station in Trappes was attacked by hundreds of youths after officers stopped a veiled woman in the town. Of France’s millions of Muslims, only around 2,000 are thought to fully cover their faces with veils.