41. Security Concerns or Human Rights Violation: Niqab Bans in the United Kingdom

Author: Julia Phillips, Senior

Immigration into the United Kingdom over the last fifty years or so, especially into its major cities, has caused the country to undergo a remarkable transformation from a rather homogeneous society into one that is home to people from many different world cultures. With such a complex and multi-cultural society, it is understandable that there are going to be issues that prove divisive. One such issue is the niqab worn by some Muslim women. The niqab is a face veil that covers the nose and mouth and is typically accompanied by clothing that covers the whole body, excluding the hands and feet, and a headscarf.  Currently, the niqab is the most hotly debated form of hijab in the United Kingdom, though controversy has arisen around Muslim head coverings and clothing in general for decades.  The freedom to practice and express one’s religious beliefs, including wearing religious garments such as the niqab, is guaranteed in Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights, except when the government deems a limitation to that right is “necessary in… the interests of public safety.”  This qualification has many in this security conscious country asking if the niqab should be allowed at all in public spaces, but many Britons fear that this would be taking measures too far and infringing on the basic right of self-expression of women who choose to wear the niqab. Though it is not known how many women wear the niqab in the UK, it is believed to be a small percentage of Muslim women.  Islam, however, is the second-most common religion in England and Wales, with 4.8% of the population according to the 2011 Census.  After the terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists on 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005, many British Muslims have reported increased discrimination, particularly if they wear a headscarf or the niqab.  Such discrimination is still present throughout the UK today, due to a misunderstanding of Islam and a desire to have a scapegoat.  While Islamophobia can be a problem in Britain,  it does not appear to be the driving force behind decisions to ban niqabs and other face coverings in certain public places. These decisions typically stem from desires for increased security, fairness, and a perceived need for a human connection through face-to-face contact. The public backlash against the bans, proposed or implemented, demonstrates that many Britons value religious and personal freedoms and are opposed to infringing on such rights, unless there is a clear reason why the ban is in the best interest of many. The following case studies of a court ban, a school ban, and a series of hospital bans illustrate the debate over whether or not the niqab should be banned in public places, with some arguing that it is a matter of safety and security, others arguing that any ban is an assault on human rights, and resolution only occurring when a fair and balanced discussion takes place. 

In September 2013, controversy surrounded Judge Peter Murphy’s decision not to allow a defendant to take the stand while wearing the niqab.  This was a nuanced decision, where he informed her that she would have to remove the niqab while giving testimony, but could wear the niqab while in court (as long as there was a woman who could confirm her identity). Judge Murphy added that there could be no court sketches published of her without the niqab and that they were open to reaching a compromise that limited the number of people who saw her without the niqab.  Was this decision based on internalized bigotry towards Muslims? It does not appear to be the case. Judge Murphy explained in his statement that he wanted to make sure rule of law, in which everyone is treated the same under the eyes of the law, is upheld.  Religion is not the issue; the face being covered is. Being able to see the face of witnesses testifying in court has long been considered important to the determination of truth in the British legal system.  Not only does being able to view the face help to corroborate that the witness is indeed who he or she purports to be, it also aids the judge and jury in weighing the veracity of the witness’ testimony.  For instance, a witness’ verbal testimony may be completely overshadowed by facial expressions that suggest the person is lying. 

Many Muslims, including some who wear the niqab, went on record with their agreement with Judge Murphy’s decision.  Shalina Litt, an English radio presenter who wears the niqab, explained to The Huffington Post that she, and most other women who wear the niqab, recognize that the modern world requires the face being seen at times and are willing to comply with reasonable requests to remove the veil.  This argument is seconded by Shaista Gohir, chair of the Muslim Women’s Network UK, who adds that, since the women who wear the niqab are such a small minority, it seems more prudent to develop precedent on a case-by-case basis and not make wearing the niqab into a political battle.

The courtroom is not the only pace where debate over head and face coverings is currently occurring. The controversy around students wearing niqabs or other Islamic religious clothing in school is one that resurfaces with some regularity. In 2006, Shabina Begum was told that she could not wear the jilbab in school, though the uniform policy did allow for hijabs to be worn.  Begum appealed this ban up to the House of Lords, where it was decided that she had to follow the uniform policy and that it was not a breach of her human rights to not be allowed to wear the jilbab.  In 2007, then-Education Secretary Alan Johnson gave schools the right to ban students from wearing the niqab and that he believed strongly that it should be banned in all schools.  British schools are fervent believers in the importance of uniforms, as demonstrated by the Department for Education recommendation that all schools adopt a uniform.  UK citizens tend to favor school uniforms for a number of reasons, such as the creation of a school identity, the promotion of conformity, and the avoidance of distractions stemming from student dress.  The niqab presents an additional concern as it may obscure the student’s face enough to make it difficult to determine the student’s identity and allow cheating. The Department for Education’s recommendation in favor of school uniforms does not go so far as recommending a ban on certain types of clothing, and it does explain that uniform policies have to be flexible in necessary situations, particularly if the uniform infringes on a student’s religious beliefs.  Many schools are fine with students practicing hijab, to the point of including instructions on the color of the headscarf (the typical form of hijab for young Muslim women) into the uniform policy.  The current coalition government is split on what should be done about the wearing of the niqab in schools, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying that he supported the ban and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stating that, though he did not personally feel niqabs should be worn in the classroom, any ban on the niqab would have to be clearly justified and rare.  This split tends to suggest the issue of hijab, whether a niqab or other form of hijab, in schools is far from over.

A case study that demonstrates the controversy of school bans in more detail is that of Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMC), which made headlines in September 2013 for its newly introduced ban on face coverings, including the niqab. In this case, the ban had been introduced on the basis of safety reasons, as the niqab obscures most of the face and could potentially be used as a disguise to get on campus.  Media attention was brought to the case not by the ban itself, but rather by the uproar from the student body and the general public. There are only a handful of students at BMC who choose to wear the niqab, but much of the student body and community stood up in support of their right to express their religion.  There was a massive social media campaign, led by students at BMC, a petition with nine thousand names, and a planned lunchtime demonstration, all of which finally convinced the administration at BMC to revoke their ban.  Public opinion, which was on Judge Murphy’s side during the previous case study,  was clearly opposed to the ban in this case, as most did not agree that the ban was justifiable.  While the general public accepted the idea that being on trial is one of the situations where seeing a person’s face is justifiably necessary, there was widespread belief in this case that just being on school grounds was not enough of a reason to ban the niqab. This is not to say that the ban was universally opposed. In fact, many people in the general public supported it.  But the fact that there was enough public support to convince BMC’s administration to repeal the ban reflects the widely held British view that niqab bans are discriminatory unless there is acceptable justification.

A different series of niqab bans, which have been the subject of far less publicity and public controversy, have been those of several NHS Trusts and Hospitals. This has been going on quietly for several years. For example, Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has had face-covering bans on the books since 2009.  In total, seventeen trusts have decided to ban the niqab.  The reason that these bans are coming to light is because of a recent decision by the NHS to review clothing guidelines and a comment made by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that patients should be able to see the face of the person who is treating them.  Reasons for this range from the hospital’s desire to ensure the person rendering the treatment is who she says she is, to promoting healing by reducing patient anxiety.  In this case, it seems that most of the involved parties are in agreement that the wearing of a niqab may not be appropriate in all hospital-related activities and should be a decision for each hospital and each doctor or nurse who wears the niqab to make together.  In many ways, the hospital ban represents a balanced approach to determining appropriate rules for niqabs. There is consultation of those who wear the niqab, the doctors and administrators of the hospital or trust, and the patients. Though Hunt became slightly involved by stating his opinion, this discussion mostly has been removed from the realm of politics and public debate. 

The debate about the niqab is likely to go on indefinitely, until there is real discussion about why the niqab is worn and when it is appropriate to remove it. But these case studies demonstrate that most of the concerns leading to banning the niqab in the UK have been based on equal treatment, security, and communication concerns, not prejudice against Muslims. The point of view of the Britons banning the niqab (or trying to) in their own institutions is not one of Muslim discrimination, but of trying to make the right choice for their courtroom, school, or hospital. The concern, however, is that these smaller scale bans may lead to larger bans, such as a ban of the niqab in all public spaces that is advocated by some politicians. Such bans would infringe on women’s ability to express their religion in their preferred method.  It is unlikely, given Britons’ generally strong preference for personal and religious freedom, that policy makers and politicians would unilaterally institute any such ban. Yet given the simplistic pronouncements on the niqab made by some politicians, the British public may not be able to completely rely on its government to sort out the justification and legality of proposed bans. Public discussion of the pros and cons underlying proposed bans is a necessity and the British public will have to stand up when they feel a ban infringes on human rights. Of course, this level of public awareness concerning government and institutional policy is important whenever rights may be infringed upon, not just in the case of the niqab. 
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