Muslim Veils

Last Thursday, 19th September, British Home Secretary, Teresa May, said that, “It is not the role of the state to tell women what to wear”.

What is wrong with this statement?

Mrs May made this statement in the wake of a judge telling a white Muslim convert that she could not wear a niqab (a cloth or veil covering all her face except for a slit for her eyes) while appearing in the dock.  Eventually the woman was allowed to be identified by a policewoman outside the dock, but still did not remove her veil.

It evidently did not occur to the judge to simply order the defendant to the cells and deal with her case (she was accused and eventually convicted of 19 counts of fraud by abuse of public position) on the basis of a no-show in court.

Previous veil cases

This case is reminiscent of the case of Shabina Begum, a Moslem girl who in 2006 refused to wear a school uniform which allowed trousers and the hijab (a scarf covering hair) in the school colours, but insisted instead on wearing a jilbab (a vast all-enveloping garment, way out of line with the school’s uniform).  Eventually the school’s Local Education Authority, which had tried very hard to reach a compromise in the usual indulgent British fashion, took the girl to court for non-attendance.  The girl appealed against its order for her to attend school (Denbigh High School) on grounds of religion.  Then on being refused, she appealed to the House of Lords Supreme Court, which issued what was thought to be a binding judgement in case law.  The Court rejected the girl’s claim that the school had denied her the right to manifest her religion.  On the contrary the school had taken “immense pains to devise a uniforms’ policy which respected Muslim belief”.  Moreover there were (incredibly) “other schools in her catchment area that permitted the jilbab” where presumably she could have gone.

Notwithstanding this judgement, a few months later a twelve year-old girl was sent home from another school for wearing the niqab.  The school’s head teacher in her witness statement at the judicial review (which the twelve year-old’s supporters instigated with her approval) said “I considered that wearing the niqab was a breach of the uniform policy and was inappropriate in that it would hamper the teaching and learning of the pupil and would affect her communication and socialising with others”.  Moreover, she said, “for a girl to conceal her face is contrary to the ethos of the school and we are very conscious of our duty to educate girls . . . to live in British and international society”.  The school is a high achieving girls’ grammar school which means it is among the top 100 secondary schools in England, probably among the top 500 state schools in the whole world.  By any standards, attending such a school, where in 2007 Muslims were a 9% minority, is an immense privilege which literally hundreds of thousands of English girls would love to have the chance of attending.

Political Reactions to the Latest Veil Case

Most comment has focussed on the instrumental issue – that women wearing a niqab veil cannot do jobs like nursing patients if the patients can’t see their face.  Jack Straw, a former Home Secretary in the Blair government and MP for Blackburn, said that he was “very uncomfortable” dealing with a constituent dressed this way.  Dan Poulter, the Health Minister, has asked clinical regulators to draw up rules to ban the wearing of the face veil by health-care staff while in contact with patients, adding that he was “proud of the rich ethnic diversity of our health-care workforce”.

It’s a fair bet that the vast majority of native British people feel that the remarks by Mr Poulter and Mrs May miss the point.  Whatever Mr Poulter’s views of the advantages of ethnic diversity in the health services, it’s also a fair bet that most British people, while appreciative of the efforts of individuals from ethnic minorities, would, given a choice, prefer people of their own kind to treat them in serious situations.

The very idea of someone wearing something which hides their face and restricts their vision to a narrow slit, being allowed to do any of a host of jobs: bus-driver, machinist, checkout clerk, librarian, gardener, TV presenter, and so on, strikes the vast majority of people – of all races and religions – as patently absurd, not worth discussing, let alone going to law about.

Law and Religion

In a justly famous remark, the great Queen Elizabeth I, around 1563 actually defined what the state’s view of religious tolerance was and has been in all the English Common Law-based countries of the world ever since: “I seek no windows into men’s souls”.

Today in the face of a religion whose adherents extend all the way from quiet believers to suicide bombers, with a substantial minority in between who lose little opportunity to exhibit their beliefs in public, Western governments and law administrators (police and courts) have generally given in to Muslim demands for special treatment, especially in education.  These demands invariably centre on the phrase “because of my religion”.

Queen Elizabeth’s words were meant and have been interpreted ever since to refer to the “private expression of beliefs” and those buildings for the faithful in keeping with “private expressions of belief”[1].  Holding a belief whether categorised as religious or not, has never hitherto been allowed to override English law.  Sir Charles Napier, in the 1830s in India, when helping to put down the age-old Hindu religious customs of Suttee (widow burning), Thuggee (strangling of travellers in sacrifice to the Goddess Kali) and female infanticide – now being practised, unpunished, by a small number of Asian surgeons in Britain[2], gave the proper answer when challenged that thugee was a Hindu religious custom: “Under our law we hang murderers”.

Politicians not upholding British Laws and Customs

Instead of a robust upholding of the law, the Labour former Home Secretary, Jacquie Smith, for instance, in 2008 chose to prevent a democratically elected Dutch parliamentarian and film-maker, Geert Wilders, from responding to a perfectly respectable invitation to Britain on the grounds that his film, “Fitna” and his statements about Muslim beliefs “threaten community harmony and therefore public safety”.  Wherever you see the word “community” other than coupled with “hall” or “centre”, you can be sure that it relates to a particular ethnic or religious minority, usually Moslem or Afro-Caribbean.  Certainly the British public expressed no alarm about Wilders’s perfectly lawful visit, so one may presume that the threats to public safety came from inside the Moslem “community”, in which case it was the duty of the police to keep any disturbances under control.

More cases of pressure on individuals who refuse to bow down to Muslim pressure are now coming to light, including very recently a fifty year-old lady teacher at the Al-Madinah state-funded school in Derby who refused to wear a hijab and a full length dress instead of the normal business suit she had worn in previous schools.

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA)

Most of the legal challenges to the authorities’ requiring Muslims to conform to the norms of British society cite the Human Rights Act 1998 – usually the “rights to family life” (Article Eight) and “freedom of expression” (Article Nine).

As most people already know the HRA derives from the European Convention on Human rights which was enacted in the 1950s as a response to the 1930s Fascist and post-war Communist dictatorships in Europe.  The objective was to help individuals who were unjustly imprisoned or silenced by the regimes they had to live under.  Today, in contemporary Britain – and in other European countries – this humane instrument has been entirely subverted by illegal asylum seekers resisting deportation (Articles Three and Eight) and by some (not all) Muslim groups seeking (under Article Nine – freedom of religious expression) to establish Muslim norms and customs, including Sharia law, in Britain, whose Common Law goes back at least to Alfred the Great, and has provided a framework of freedom in all the countries of overseas British settlement.

This is why Mrs May’s remark is so wrong.  (Muslim) women are not “being told what to wear” – they are being told what they can’t wear when carrying out their jobs and common law duties – just as everyone else is.

Furthermore there is a fundamental difference between an isolated individual wearing a burka or a bearskin in the High Street and a succession of people wearing what is in effect a religious uniform.  People are part of the landscape and if large numbers are clothed in alien dress, they will change the character of the street into that of a foreign country against the wishes of the native inhabitants.

A British Rights and Duties Act to replace the HRA

The nation has rights as well as the individual.  This is unrecognised by the HRA, which is focussed entirely on the rights of the individual, whether foreign or native vis à vis the British state.  To redress the balance a “British Rights and Duties Act (BRDA) needs to be enacted.  The principles of such an Act should include:

  • Repeal of the HRA 1998
  • It should apply only to British citizens and other Crown subjects.
  • There would be no appeal to the European Court of Human Rights or to its case law.
  • While enshrining the usual individual rights which British people have enjoyed for hundreds of years going back to Magna Carta, there would be a requirement to respect the great institutions and festivals of the British state: Parliament, the Crown, Remembrance Day, the Armed Forces.
  • A recognition of the explicit and implicit duties which being a British citizen entails.  These include national service (social or military) at times of crisis, and the duty to contribute to the common good, and respect the rights of your neighbours.  The burka and niqab would be banned from public places as would other face masks.

In essence the new BRD Act needs to incorporate a rider to Queen Elizabeth I’s dictum quoted above, “Nor do we want men’s souls displayed”.


[1]  A mosque capable of holding 5,000 people would not fall under this heading.

[2]  While having incontrovertible evidence of surgical terminations of healthy female foetuses, the Department of Kier Starmer QC (Director of Public Prosecutions) announced that prosecution would “not be in the public interest”, September 2013, provoking a storm of protest.


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One Response to “Muslim Veils”

  1. Ageing Albion says:

    Apologists for the veil have offered a variety of excuses, including (i) it is a religious requirement; (ii) it prevents women from being judged on their appearance.

    As to (i) the answer is as you have set out. If I say that my religion entitles me to marry underage girls I would not get a respectable hearing, nor would I deserve one.

    As to (ii), does that mean men should also be allowed to wear the burka in public places? The argument in favour is identical to that for females.

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