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.