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A niqab and burqa ban in Britain?


Posted 28 February 2014. Updated 22 February 2015 for closure of e-petition.

Many non-Muslims object to Muslim women wearing a niqab (face veil) or a burqa (all over body covering). Some contend that women who dress that way are forced to do so by the men in their family, and need to be liberated from such oppression. Others simply regard such modes of dress as unacceptably alien.

Such attitudes have led some European countries to ban wearing a niqab or burqa in public. France legislated a ban with effect from September 2010 and Belgium from March 2011. There is a Wikipedia page on the status of Islamic dress in Europe.

In the UK, politicians occasionally discuss their attitudes to niqab and burqa. Jack Straw MP raised the issue in 2006. More recently in September 2013 Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne MP called for a national debate on the subject. However the Home Secretary Theresa May MP that same month was been unambiguous in opposing a ban. She said:

"I start from the position that I don't think government should tell people, I don't think the government should tell women, what they should be wearing.

I think it's for women to make a choice about what clothes they wish to wear, if they wish to wear a veil that is for a woman to make a choice.

There will be some circumstances in which it's right for public bodies, for example at the border, at airport security, to say there is a practical necessity for asking somebody to remove a veil.

I think it's for public bodies like the Border Force officials, it's for schools and colleges, and others like the judiciary, as we've recently seen, to make a judgment in relation to those cases as to whether it's necessary to ask somebody to remove the veil.. But in general women should be free to decide what to wear for themselves."

Earlier this week I decided to write about the subject because a Conservative backbencher, Philip Hollobone MP, is promoting a Private Member's Bill seeking to ban wearing the niqab and burqa in public. Several Muslims had approached me under the impression that the attempted ban represented Conservative Party policy. That would clearly make it more difficult for the Party to attract Muslim votes in elections.

The piece below was published on 26 February on the Conservative Home website. I picked the somewhat facetious title to emphasise the political damage the Bill is causing.

Mohammed Amin: Alienating Muslim Voters – Episode 25

Mohammed Amin is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is writing in a personal capacity.

On Friday, the House of Commons sees the second reading of the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill 2013-14. This is a Private Member’s Bill sponsored by Philip Hollobone MP, and it has only four clauses.

Very briefly, with a few exceptions it would criminalise “wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place.” It would also make it lawful for the owner of private premises who provides goods and services to require wearers to remove their face coverings or leave, and would require those providing or receiving public services to not wear face coverings.

In the Private Members’ Bills Ballot on 16 May 2013, 20 names were drawn. Mr Hollobone was not one of them. In the previous session, only 10 Private Members’ Bills made it to the statute book. Accordingly, irrespective of the subject matter, pressure of Parliamentary time alone indicates that this Bill will not get enacted. If it does, I will buy a chocolate fedora so that I can digestibly eat my hat!

What is the Bill really about?

Let’s be frank. This Bill is about Muslim women who choose to wear a niqab (face veil) or a burqa (all over body garment). This is an issue on which Mr Hollobone has had strong feelings for many years; as an illustration see this Guardian story from 2010.

Where do I stand?

I believe that each adherent of any religion is responsible for deciding for themselves what they believe and how their religion should be practiced. They can take note of the views of religious leaders if they wish. That applies even in religions with a formal hierarchy; e.g. Roman Catholics are supposed to follow the Pope’s teachings; some choose to; others choose not to. It applies even more strongly in religions with no formal hierarchy such as Sunni Islam.

Meanwhile the state is responsible for making laws that apply to all of its citizens. Most of the time state laws and religious practice do not conflict. Sometimes they do; e.g. the state will mandate a blood transfusion for the minor child of Jehovah’s Witnesses, overriding the parents’ religious views.

None of my Muslim friends or acquaintances wears a niqab or burqa, nor do any members of my extended family as far as I am aware. I believe that there is no religious requirement to wear a niqab or burqa, and do not believe that wearing it brings you one nanometre nearer to God.

However, I also believe that if your religious views differ from mine, then you should be free to practice them. Accordingly I believe that everyone should be free to wear a niqab or burqa, except when there are clear reasons for overriding that freedom, such as security, or the need for someone in witness box to be seen properly by the jury as recently ruled by a judge.

Hence I regard the Bill as an affront to my religious freedom, and to the religious freedom of my fellow Muslims.

The political implications

Most citizens are less well informed about the niceties of the legislative process than Conservative Home readers. I have been approached by other Muslims who are genuinely concerned about the Bill being legislated. They see it as Tory legislation, since Mr Hollobone is a Conservative MP. As a concrete example, see this e-petition on the HM Government website. The drafter of the petition appears oblivious to the Bill’s status, believes that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is the responsible department, and appears not to understand MP's freedom to introduce Private Members’ Bills no matter how silly.

Accordingly, while the Bill is Mr Hollobone’s private initiative, it is the Conservative Party that is being seen as “anti-Muslim.” It is not just Muslims who will be alienated; ethnic minorities with other religious beliefs will also see the potential for their own religious beliefs to be criminalised. Some will be aware of Pastor Niemoller’s poem. The Conservative Party needs to attract voters from all parts of the community, not repel swathes of the community as “the wrong sort of voters.”

What is to be done?

The Government has far more important things to worry about (the floods, the Ukraine and Angela Merkel’s visit to name just three) than a Private Member’s Bill that has no chance of becoming law. The issue is even harder to handle because Mr Hollobone is not one of David Cameron’s most loyal supporters.

However I think it is time for the Chief Whip to invite Mr Hollobone to come into his office and have some coffee.

Readers' comments

The piece attracted a number of comments from readers. They can no longer be read due to the site's clearing of old comments as part of its housekeeping.

What dismayed me was the number of commenters who feel entitled to ban something just because they don't like it, without properly consideration of the need to protect the liberties of all citizens.

Subsequent Developments

There have been a few developments since I created this page.

House of Commons Debate

The second reading debate took place on 28 February and can now be read in Hansard. A number of MPs, including two Conservatives, spoke against the Bill. Nobody apart from Mr Hollobone spoke in favour of it. The debate was adjourned to resume on Friday 16 May.

When I met Mr Hollobone (see below) he explained that Friday 16 May is a date when the House of Commons will not be sitting. However each adjournment needs to specify a resumption date. What this means is that the Bill is now dead in practice as the debate will never be resumed.

Meeting with Philip Hollobone MP

After publishing the Conservative Home piece I emailed Philip Hollobone to inform him, as I believe in being "up front" with people. I asked to meet him, since I believe in talking with people when you disagree with them. He kindly made time for me, and we met, one to one, at the Parliamentary building Portcullis House on 4 March 2014.

It was a very amicable meeting. Both of us are agreed that wearing niqab or burqa makes it much more difficult to function effectively in society and that it acts as a barrier to interaction with one's fellow citizens. While we are agreed that wearing it is not a good idea, where we disagree is on the freedom issue.

I made it clear to Mr Hollobone that I regard it as fundamental to religious and personal freedom that people who want to wear a niqab or burqa should be free to do so, except when there are compelling reasons, such as security, to the contrary. Mr Hollobone considers that the strong dislike of large numbers of citizens for the wearing of niqab and burqa justifies making it illegal. On this we disagree.

Update on the e-petition

Although I thought the e-petition on the Government website displayed insufficient appreciation for the Bill's status as a Private Member's Bill, I signed it. When signing, I registered for updates.

On 5 March 2014 I received an update email from the Government's website. It informed me that the petition had now reached 45,426 signatures and also stated:

This e-petition has received the following response:

As this e-petition has received more than 10 000 signatures, the relevant Government department have provided the following response:

The Government does not support a ban on the wearing of the burqa or other religious head coverings. Any restrictions on what a woman can wear in public would be out of keeping with British values and our nation's longstanding record of religious tolerance and gender equality.

Britain has a proud tradition of religious tolerance. The Government is committed to creating a strong and integrated society in which hatred and prejudice are not tolerated and in which all people are free to express their identity and live without fear of harassment and crime that targets them because of that identity. A key part of our tolerance is respect for other’s beliefs and religious practices, and an understanding of how our own practices impact on others.

The Government wants to see greater integration between communities and is strongly committed to encouraging dialogue and co-operation between people of different religious backgrounds. We think this, rather than a burqa ban, is the way to make progress.

This e-petition remains open to signatures and will be considered for debate by the Backbench Business Committee should it pass the 100 000 signature threshold.

The e-petition closed on 8 October 2014 after 12 months as all e-petitions do. It had received 47,665 signatures, which is a good number but below the 100,000 signature threshhold required for an e-petition to be considered for debate by Parliament.


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