13 Sep 2013

Birmingham college drops Muslim face veils ban

Communities Editor

A sixth form college drops its controversial ban on Muslim face veils, following a report by Channel 4 News and a threatened demonstration by hundreds of pupils.

The decision by Birmingham’s Metropolitan College was announced just a day after it had told Channel 4 News that that the niqab ban didn’t discriminate against Muslim pupils, writes Home Affairs Correspondent Darshna Soni.

But within 24 hours, 8,000 people had signed a petition against it, and hundreds of students had planned to gather outside the college in protest. The college says it has listened to the views of students and will modify its policies “to allow individuals to wear specific items of personal clothing to reflect their cultural values.”

Why should a girl be denied her right to an education simply because she wishes to cover her face? NUS student organiser

The U-turn comes after a report by Channel 4 News, which included the first interview with the two girls at the centre of the story.

Imaani, 17, and her friend Salma told me they’d been excited about starting a new course at the college. However, on their first day, they were told they would have to remove their niqab, or face veil.

“We offered to take it off for a female security guard to prove our identity, and then put it back on,” Imaani told Channel 4 News.

Security concerns

But this wasn’t enough for the college, which said it needed to see all pupils faces at all times, for “security reasons”. It told me that all face coverings and hoodies and caps were banned.

“But hoodies and caps aren’t worn for religious reasons, the burka is,” said Salma.

The story led to a fierce debate about religious freedoms, identity and integration. Many people spoke out in favour of the girls, including National Union of Students (NUS) student organiser Ayesha Crealatif, who told me: “Why should a girl be denied her right to an education simply because she wishes to cover her face?”

But others asked why the girls could not simply follow college rules, like everyone else had to.

“I wouldn’t be allowed to sit in the classroom with a ski mask on, why should they,” asked one young man.

Watch the original Channel 4 News report below

In a statement issued on Friday, Birmingham Metroplitan College said: “We are concerned that recent media attention is detracting from our core mission of providing high quality learning. As a consequence, we will modify our policies to allow individuals to wear specific items of personal clothing to reflect their cultural values.”

It added: “The college will still need to be able to confirm an individual’s identity in order to maintain safeguarding and security.”

National issue

The controversy also appeared to highlight tensions within government. The prime minister appeared to back the ban, defending the right of educational institutions to be able to “set and enforce their own school uniform policies”.

But his deputy Nick Clegg said he felt “uneasy” about the niqab ban in schools.

Nationally, the debate focused on the rights of minorities, with some Muslims feeling that the row is part of a growing Islamophobia. And it comes just as similar debate is being held in our courts. On Thursday, I sat in Blackfriars crown court and listened to a judge debating whether the principle of open justice overrode a defendant’s religious beliefs.

The case involved a 22-year-old woman accused of intimidating a witness. She was due to enter a plea, but her barrister told the judge the defendant didn’t feel comfortable revealing her face in front of the men in the room.

Hoodies and caps aren’t worn for religious reasons, the burka is. Salma

Susan Meek argued that her client was entitled to wear the niqab under the section of the European convention on human rights relating to religious beliefs.

The court heard details from a similar case which reached Canada’s supreme court last year after a judge ruled that a woman should remove her niqab when testifying so jurors could properly gauge her credibility as a witness.

In the end, a compromise was reached so that the woman could enter her plea. A female police officer witnessed the defendant and then swore on oath that the correct person was in court.

However, the trial is due to begin in November and the judge will rule on Monday whether or not the woman will be allowed to wear her niqab. The issue has still not been resolved – and we should expect to see more and more examples of this story over the coming months.