A veiled threat: The principle of open justice trumps the right to individual religious expression

There are delicate issues here. But they are less complex than the outcry suggests

Share

The full, face-covering veil worn by some Muslim women is a perennially tricky subject. Freighted as it is with religious symbolism, with unanswered questions as to the status of women, and with implications about immigration and integration, the niqab – and the official response to it – has sparked debate in any number of European countries. Now, the controversy has burst forth in Britain yet again.

First came a Birmingham college’s attempt to enforce rules requiring students to be “easily identifiable” – which in practice meant a Muslim youngster was told to remove her veil. After a storm of protest, the institution backed down. Then, a judge faced the thorny question of a niqab-wearing defendant refusing to disclose her face in court – and ruled that she must do so.

Cue much commotion. While some were outraged at attacks on the freedom of religious expression, others demanded that the “repressive” niqab be banned. Both sides bandied claims of Britishness. For some, it is “un-British” for women to be veiled; for their opponents, it is un-British for the state to tell us what to wear.

There are, of course, delicate issues here. But they are less complex than the outcry suggests. The ruling from Judge Peter Murphy at Blackfriars Crown Court, in particular, is a model of balance. The accused may keep her veil, except when she is required to give evidence. For that, she must reveal her face to judge, jurors and counsel, although she can be shielded by a screen from the rest of the court.

It remains to be seen whether defendant “D” will appeal. We can only hope not. Not out of an arbitrary need to enforce cultural norms or to suppress religious freedoms. Rather, because human beings have evolved to read each other’s expressions and it is therefore necessary for faces to be uncovered in a court of law.

To get bogged down in a debate about the state’s sartorial remit or society’s obsession with women’s appearance is to over-complicate matters. This is about the right to a fair and open trial, not only in this case but, by extension, in all others, too. Religious beliefs must be respected, but the credibility of the legal system comes first, as Judge Murphy rightly ruled.

What the decision does not amount to, however, is a wholesale attack on an individual’s right to wear what they please. Nor should it. To many, the niqab may be incomprehensible; but it is not harmful. Birmingham Metropolitan College’s rethink is, therefore, also to be welcomed: a tolerant society must have space for a minority to veil themselves if they wish.

That, indeed, is the nub. Amid this week’s furore, the proverbial Martian visitor might expect to find a Britain chock-full of veiled women. In fact, the number is infinitesimal, at most a couple of thousand out of 63 million. The niqab is a sensitive topic, but it must be kept in proportion. Of late, a judge and a further-education college have done just that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The bustling Accident & Emergency ward at Milton Keynes Hospital  

The NHS needs the courage to adapt and survive

Nigel Edwards
 

Letter from the Sub-Editor: Canada is seen as a peaceful nation, but violent crime isn’t as rare as you might think

Jeffrey Simpson
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?