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Last Updated: Sunday, 15 October 2006, 17:18 GMT 18:18 UK
Minister 'reckless' over veil row
Aishah Azmi
The 23-year-old insists the veil is not a communication barrier

A minister has been accused of "reckless intervention" after he said a Muslim teaching assistant suspended for wearing a full veil should be sacked.

Phil Woolas told the Sunday Mirror that Aishah Azmi, 23, had "put herself in a position where she can't do her job".

But the Muslim Council of Britain said Mr Woolas, whose brief covers race relations, should not have interfered.

Meanwhile, Labour MP for Dewsbury Shahid Malik said the volume of Muslim stories was having a corrosive impact.

Ms Azmi said she had never received complaints from pupils at Headfield Church of England Junior School, in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, but was told her veil could not be worn in class.

She added she would remove the garment, but not in front of male colleagues.

'Unprecedented'

Mr Woolas, a local government minister, told the newspaper that this amounted to sexual discrimination and called for her to be sacked.

Speaking later on the BBC's Politics Show he stopped short of repeating the call, but said he would defend the head teacher if Ms Azmi was sacked.

"The head teacher says that she's not able to do her job...and if the head teacher says that that's the action that needs to be taken, then so be it," he said.

His comments have triggered fierce criticism.

Inayat Bunglawala, from the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "This is an extraordinarily reckless intervention."

Labour peer Lord Ahmed said: "It's unprecedented - in fact quite extraordinary - that a minister can be calling for a sacking of a school classroom assistant."

He added that the minister should be concentrating on "discrimination in the Muslim community" rather than attacking it.

There are so many people in this country who wear the veil and who are very well educated
Aishah Azmi

The Islamic Society of Britain said it was wrong for a minister to wade into a sensitive case to score political points.

Responding to Mr Woolas's critics, a spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: "It's far better to debate the issues than sweep them under the carpet when the question of children's education is at stake."

Mr Malik, local MP for Dewsbury, added that while he thought Mr Woolas was right to intervene, the media, politicians and others needed to take a "reality check".

"Both Muslims and non-Muslims are just getting fed up and tired with Muslim stories in the media," he said.

Ms Azmi's lawyer has called for Mr Woolas to withdraw his comments, which he warned might influence the classroom assistant's imminent employment tribunal.

"Mrs Azmi is very well able to carry out her role as a teaching assistant providing support to pupils who speak English as a second language," said Nick Whittingham, of Kirklees Law Centre.

"She is able to do this effectively while wearing the veil. She has demonstrated in a number of interviews that she can communicate effectively while wearing the veil."

A Muslim woman wearing a veil
Some Muslim women say the Koran instructs them to wear the veil

Kirklees Council earlier said that Ms Azmi had been asked to take off her veil in class following complaints from children and teachers that it was difficult to understand her in English lessons.

When she refused to remove the veil, she was suspended pending an employment tribunal.

The council said the school's action had "nothing to do with religion".

Ms Azmi told the BBC her veil had not caused problems with the children, with whom she had a "brilliant relationship".

"The children are aware of my body language, my eye expressions, the way I'm saying things."

But Ms Azmi later admitted she had taken the veil off to be interviewed for the job by a male governor.

The school, which has 529 pupils aged seven to 11, takes many children from different ethnic backgrounds where English is not the first language.

Religious freedoms

The Leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, initiated a debate on veil-wearing last week when he suggested the full veil over the face separated communities.

His comments were supported by shadow home secretary David Davis who, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, questioned whether a form of "voluntary apartheid" was being inadvertently encouraged.

He later said he did not endorse the call for Ms Azmi to be sacked, but felt wearing a veil was not appropriate in that job.

"But I wouldn't get involved in any calls, myself anyway, in any calls for sacking until the disciplinary procedure is concluded."


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