Page last updated at 04:02 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Should the UK ban the Muslim face veil?

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

Woman wearing niqb, file pic
The Muslim veil comes in various forms including the burka and niqab

A French parliamentary committee has recommended a partial ban on women wearing Islamic face veils. So should there be a similar ban in the UK - and would it work?

Just across the English Channel, allowing a woman to veil her face in public places such as hospitals, government offices and on public transport could soon be called into question.

In a country where the separation of state and religion is enshrined in law, a parliamentary committee report ruled the veil was "contrary to the values of the republic" and called on parliament to adopt a formal resolution proclaiming "all of France is saying 'no' to the full veil".

Find out about different styles of Muslim headscarf

France - which is home to five million Muslims - has a history of debating the full veil, with President Nicolas Sarkozy declaring it "not welcome" in 2010.

The country banned Muslim headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious symbols at state schools in 2004.

Despite calls from some groups for a full or partial ban on veils, there is currently no ban on Islamic dress in the UK - although schools were allowed to set out their own dress code in 2007 after several high-profile court cases.

'Not British'

But could a ban by Britain's nearest continental neighbours influence policy back home?

In January 2010, Schools Secretary Ed Balls said it was "not British" to tell people what to wear in the street.

But writing in the Independent, journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who chairs the group British Muslims for Secular Democracy, said she supported restrictions on wearing the face veil in key public spaces.

"This covering makes women invisible, invalidates their participatory rights and confirms them as evil temptresses.

"I feel the same fury when I see Orthodox Jewish women in wigs, with their many children, living tightly proscribed lives," she writes.

She said progressive Muslims came out "daily" against the burka, which was an "un-Islamic custom".

"During the Hajj pilgrimage no woman covers her face. The burka makes women more, not less, conspicuous, and communication is unequal because one party hides all expression," she claimed.

'Mutual respect'

Sunday Express journalist Yvonne Ridley
Yvonne Ridley was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001

However, Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who converted to Islam after she was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, said the French decision was "driven by Islamophobia - not the freedom or liberties of women".

She said she did not know anyone who had been forced to wear the niqab (which covers the face apart from the eyes) or the body-covering burka.

Some Muslims chose to wear the niqab for religious reasons - because they believed it brought them closer to their faith - she said.

She said the UK "would not tolerate" a move like the one in France.

"Muslim women in Britain are more empowered than their sisters on the continent, largely because of the amazing anti-war movement which brought secular women alongside Muslim women."

She said she understood why some people found the veil "unnerving", but insisted "everyone should have a choice".

Only a "tiny minority" of Muslims - a couple of thousand - wore the niqab in the UK, and "most of them were white Western converts who you could not say were quiet, suppressed women," she said.

"We can't allow legislation against the niqab. If we let it go the hijab will be next. Everyone should have choice. Where would it stop, hair dye, face piercing?", she said.

'Election tool'

Muslims are obviously in the spotlight. The BNP and UKIP are playing on an anti-Muslim sentiment; there is a real concern the face veil and other issues will be used as an election tool
Shaista Gohir
Muslim Women's Network UK

Shaista Gohir, executive director at Muslim Women's Network UK, agreed the face veil should not be banned in the UK, but said there needed to be a "internal debate amongst the Muslim community".

"There needs to be more research on why some women choose to wear the veil and how they think they are perceived. Muslim communities need to instigate, be proactive, rather than wait for politicians like Jack Straw to say something and respond," she said.

In 2006, Jack Straw angered Muslim groups after he said face veils were a "visible statement of separation and of difference" and suggested they could make community relations harder.

Ms Gohir said she could understand people might have reservations about the impact the veil had on integration - and it might prevent women from gaining employment - but a minority of Muslims felt the interpretation of Islam meant wearing a veil was part of their religion.

She said veils needed to be looked at "properly" in a "non-racist way".

But she expressed concern that politicians might use "issues like this" in the lead-up to the elections.

Last week ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who leads UKIP's 13 MEPs in Brussels, said the veils were a symbol of an "increasingly divided Britain", that they "oppressed" women, and were a potential security threat - and called for a total ban.

The BNP has already called for the veil to be banned in schools.

"Muslims are obviously in the spotlight. The BNP and UKIP are playing on an anti-Muslim sentiment; there is a real concern the face veil and issues like it will be used as an election tool", said Ms Gohir.

"Just because France are doing something, Britain does not have to follow suit."

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