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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 October 2006, 22:59 GMT 23:59 UK
The woman at centre of veil case
By Mark Simpson
BBC North of England correspondent

Teaching assistant Aishah Azmi has no regrets about the huge controversy stirred by her refusal to take off her veil during lessons.

Aishah Azmi
Ms Azmi is still suspended from her teaching assistant job

She is small in stature, but big on principle.

The Cardiff-born support teacher is unfazed by the national - and international - attention paid to her refusal to take off her veil when working with male colleagues.

The 23-year-old, married mother-of-one knows she could defuse the row by backing down, but will she?

"No" is her polite but firm reply.

Although born in Wales, her family later moved to Birmingham. Her father is an academic and came from India to Britain in the 1970s.

From Birmingham, the family moved to Dewsbury, in West Yorkshire.

Ironically, from the age of seven to 11, Ms Azmi went to the same school that she is now suspended from - Headfield Church of England Junior School.

'Puzzling' criticism

She started teaching there in September last year. Although she didn't wear her veil to the job interview, she did wear it when she began teaching.

Her critics will point to her decision not to wear it during her job interview

She worked in the classroom with other members of staff and her precise job title was ethnic minority achievement curriculum support assistant.

This meant working with Year 6 pupils, aged 11, who speak English as their second language, and assisting them with lessons in maths and English.

Mrs Azmi says the first two members of staff she worked with in the classroom did not raise the issue of the veil as a problem - but a third one did.

This was three weeks into the job, and she says she felt "puzzled". She claims no complaints had been made by children or parents, merely from one male teacher.

However, the local council claimed her ability to teach the children properly was suffering.

'Caught unawares'

Mrs Azmi has been wearing a veil for eight years - and refused the school's requests to take it off when teaching.

Suddenly, the case of a young woman from a quiet corner of West Yorkshire is headline news

Her critics will point to her decision not to wear it during her job interview.

A week ago, during a BBC interview she was asked directly whether she wore the veil at her interview. She hesitated and then replied: "Do I have to answer all the questions?"

When pressed again, she admitted she had not worn the veil but insisted she did not realise she was going to be interviewed by a male.

"I was caught unawares," she said.

Sick leave

When the veil controversy began at the school last year, she admitted she considered resigning but in the end she decided that if they wanted rid of her, they would have to sack her.

She was off on sick leave for a number of months and when she returned in February, she was again asked to remove her veil - and again she refused.

After being suspended, an employment tribunal hearing was held in July.

It is only now that a decision on her various complaints has been reached.

The tribunal dismissed her claims of discrimination and harassment on religious grounds.

But Kirklees Council, the local education authority, was ordered to pay her 1,100 for victimising her.

Of course, what has changed since July is that, thanks to politicians like Jack Straw, the wearing of the veil is now high on the British political agenda.

Suddenly, the case of a young woman from a quiet corner of West Yorkshire is headline news.

After she held a news conference on the first floor of a Leeds hotel on Thursday afternoon, I asked Mrs Azmi if she could tell us more about herself, for example what were her interests?

She replied simply: "Education."

Under that veil is a mind clearly focused on proving her point - and getting her job back.


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