[Muslim women with niqab, will they be banned from schools and colleges in near future?. [Photo: Ahmed J Versi/The Muslim News]
By Elham Asaad Buaras
Birmingham Metropolitan College (BMC) was forced to drop its divisive ban on face veils (niqab) on September 12 less than 24 hours before a mass demo by hundreds of students.
The u-turn came after a National Union of Students (NUS) petition which branded the ban an “infringement on religious rights” and “woman’s right to choose” attracted 8,000 signatures.
Hundreds of students planned to gather outside the college to voice their opposition to the policy, which was criticised by city councillors, MPs and Muslim leaders.
Muslim women group Muslimah Pride told The Muslim News they “welcome” the u-turn.
“It is clear from the public outcry against this decision, that such a ban in a public institution is not acceptable. The ban went against the basic human rights of self-expression and the freedom to practise religion. The college was categorically wrong to administer such a ban in the first place.” said Sofia Ahmed for the group.
Speaking before the ban was reversed 17 year-old Imaani Ali said she and other niqab wearing students, “would happily show the men at security our faces so they could check them against our IDs, but they won’t let us.”
Despite promises by niqab wearing students to assist security, Prime Minister, David Cameron, backed the ban, his spokesman said he defended the right of institutions to “set and enforce their own school uniform policies.”
Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said he felt “uneasy” about a veil ban in schools, although he could understand why it was needed to identify people at airport checkouts.
Explaining its u-turn, BMC announced: “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.
“The college will still need to be able to confirm an individual’s identity in order to maintain safeguarding and security.”
BMC Principal, Dame Christine Braddock, initially defended the ban insisting it enables students to study in a “safe and welcoming environment.”
“This needs individuals to be easily identifiable at all times when they are on college premises and this includes the removal of hoodies, hats, caps and veils so that faces are visible.”
Tory MP Philip Hollobone, who refuses to meet constituents wearing the niqab, has tabled a bill making it illegal to wear “face coverings” in public.
In a statement to The Muslim News NUS Vice President, Colum McGuire, said: “Whilst it is important to ensure safety on campuses, it should not mean that students lose the right to express their religious beliefs and practices. It is unacceptable for a college to enact a policy that, perhaps unintentionally, has a disproportionate impact on a specific group of students due to their faith or belief.
“No group of students from any community should feel specifically targeted due to an institutional policy. NUS believes in progressive learning environments and recognises the importance of safe, cohesive campus relations which are open to all.”
Speaking before BMC’s u-turn Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, said she was left shocked” by the college’s decision to ban “an important article of faith” for those who choose to wear it.
“I would like to know how many students are affected and a full explanation as to why the compromise suggested by students at the College that the veil is removed for security staff to check and verify identity before being put back on was not accepted by the College.
“I am deeply concerned that other colleges may follow suit as a result of which increasing numbers of women will be locked out of education and skills training – we must not allow this to happen.”
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said it was concerned at the direction of the national conversation taking place on the niqab following the BMC row, the decision by a judge to require a defendant to remove her niqab and calls from Home Office Minister, Jeremy Browne, for a national debate on this issue.
In a statement to The Muslim News MCB’s Social and Family Affairs Committee Chair, Talat Ahmed, said: “The recent events will once again generate controversy when in fact what we really need is sensible, non-hysterical conversation. The Minister Jeremy Browne calls for a national debate on the niqab, yet we have been debating this for over ten years now — if not more. And every time we discuss the niqab, it usually comes with a diet of bigoted commentary about our faith and the place of Islam in Britain.”
“There are few people who wear the niqab, and they should be allowed to wear this veil if they freely decide to do so. All Islamic junctions make provision for necessity and exceptional circumstances.”
Spokesperson for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said schools are subject to the Equality Act 2010 (which covers discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief) and as such must take action to make sure that their policies, practices and procedures are non-discriminatory. However, she said they were “not able to comment” on Cameron’s comments and on the niqab ban issue.