16 Sep 2013

Muslim face veil must be removed in witness box – judge

A judge rules that a Muslim woman must remove a full-face veil, or niqab, while giving evidence, but is allowed to wear it while standing trial – and calls on parliament to give a “definitive answer”.

Judge Peter Murphy told Blackfriars Crown Court that the Muslim woman in question would have to remove her niqab while giving evidence.

Lawyers for the woman, 22, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, had argued that forcing her to remove her veil would breach her human rights.

In a 36-page ruling, Judge Murphy said that the defendant was free to wear the niqab during trial, but added that it was “crucial” for the jury to see her while she was giving evidence and concluded: “If the defendant gives evidence she must remove the niqab throughout her evidence.”

The niqab has become the elephant in the court room – Judge Murphy

He added that courts could accommodate the woman’s preferences to some extent: “The court may use its inherent powers to do what it can to alleviate any discomfort, for example by allowing the use of screens or allowing her to give evidence by live link.”

The judge also said he hoped that government or a higher court will “provide a definite answer” to the issue, adding: “The niqab has become the elephant in the court room.”

The ruling follows comments by Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne that there should be a national debate on whether the state should step in to prevent women being forced to wear the Muslim veil.

It also comes as Birmingham Metropolitan College last week decided to drop its ban on students wearing a niqab, or full-face veil, amid protests from students and the wider public.

The defendant at the centre of Monday’s ruling has only been wearing a niqab since May 2012. But the judge said the length of time was irrelevant, and that he had “no reason to doubt the sincerity of her belief”.

‘Imposing religious conformity’

Mr Browne said he was “instinctively uneasy” about restricting religious freedoms. But added that there may be a case to act to protect girls who were too young to decide for themselves whether they wished to wear the veil or not. “I think this is a good topic for national debate. People of liberal instincts will have competing notions of how to protect and promote freedom of choice,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

“I am instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice. That would apply to Christian minorities in the Middle East just as much as religious minorities here in Britain.

Whatever one’s religion they should be free to practise it according to their own choices – Mohammed Shafiq

“But there is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children to be unable to express personal choices about other areas like buying alcohol, smoking or getting married.

“We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression.”

Mr Browne is believed to be the first Liberal Democrat to voice such views. But some Conservatives had waded into the debate during the row over the decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College.

Tory backbencher Dr Sarah Wollaston said the veils were “deeply offensive” and were “making women invisible”. David Cameron had said that he was not against banning the veil, but added that it was a matter for headteachers to decide for themselves.

‘Double standards’

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, said he was “disgusted” by Mr Browne’s calls to consider banning Muslim girls and young women from wearing the veil in public places.

“This is another example of the double standards that are applied to Muslims in our country by some politicians,” he said.

“Whatever one’s religion they should be free to practise it according to their own choices and any attempt by the government to ban Muslim women will be strongly resisted by the Muslim community.”