What has been happening during our absence? In the UK the niqab has raised its ugly head. There were two inter-related stories during the hiatus.
Birmingham Metropolitan University has caved in to demands from student groups and local politicians that female Muslim students should be allowed to wear the niqab, a veil which makes only the eyes visible to observers. ‘The ban has been lifted – ‘I have got what I wanted’, rejoiced one of the two girls insisting on the right to remain masked.
Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, Shabana Mahmood, who had spoken of her ‘deep concern’ over ban welcomed the reversal. ‘The college has made a wise decision to rethink its policy on banning veils for a group of women who would have potentially been excluded from education and skills training at the college had the ban been enforced.’
Phillip Holborne, Conservative MP for Kettering said, ‘People are frightened of standing up and speaking out in this discussion because of political correctness and the intolerant reaction from Muslim groups who jump up and down with fury whenever anyone says that it makes sense for people to go around with their faces perfectly visible to everyone else which is the way human beings were created in the first place.’
Education demands the free and open interplay between teacher and student. Having taught in all stages of UK education from primary school to post-graduate studies I would have found it difficult to have any interchange of opinions or ideas with a student who remained masked throughout the lesson, lecture or tutorial.
More importantly, this week a judge at Blackfriars Crown Court in England decided that a Muslim woman under indictment for witness intimidation will be allowed to wear a niqab during her trial. This decision breaches the bedrock principle of equality before the law. All other British subjects will be forced to undergo the public examination customary when being accused of a crime, only certain Muslim women will be given this exemption.
In a free society the courts belong to the public; in Britain justice is dispensed in the name of the monarch who acts for the public. Trials have to be public, open to the public and the press, in order to ensure that justice is done. The open public administration of justice, including the public examination of the accused, outweighs the interests of any individual who wishes to remain masked during any portion of their trial. This should be especially clear when the individual in question is on trial for witness intimidation.
The face of any witness during a trial, and especially the face of the accused, has to be visible at all times, not just when giving evidence but also when others are giving evidence concerning the alleged crime, in order to help judge the credibility of the accused. This is applicable to all people and is neutral on the matter of religion, this legal provision was not enacted out of desire to subjugate any particular sect.
The decision has been hailed in the British media as a ‘compromise’. It is not, it is appeasement.
This decision means that any non-niqab wearing British subject, when accused of a crime and brought to trial, has to face the public scrutiny of his or her peers. The niqab wearing Muslim woman does not have to face this scrutiny in a very important way.
Civil society and equal protection under the law require that basic principles of law be applied to every subject, equally. To favour one particular group above all others is to introduce institutional inequality before the law. In Animal Farm Orwell prophesied of the dangers of the time when ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. That time is now with us.
It is never worth compromising with the principle of equality before the law, especially when it involves compromising with sharia, a system which despises equality before the law, and most especially we should never compromise when it involves one of Islam’s fundamental anti-equality positions, the total subordination of women. The niqab itself is a powerful cultural statement of the anti-equality principles inherent in sharia law, anti-equality principles now legitimised in the courts of England and Wales.
The niqab should not be banned as Phillip Holborne hopes will happen when he introduces a Bill before Parliament early next year. People should be free to wear whatever they want. Many of us find the sight of a burqa or niqab clad woman distasteful and incongruous on the streets of Britain. Any unease we may feel at this should be no hindrance to the freedom of that woman to wear what she wishes to wear.
There are two caveats to the freedom to wear a burqa or niqab. Firstly, that the woman has freely chosen to wear this garment and is not being coerced into it by overbearing male relatives or community pressure. Anyone who forces a woman to wear such clothing against her will should be prosecuted for child or spousal abuse. Secondly, the freedom of bank managers, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, college principals or any other persons or organisations to refuse entry to their premises to masked individuals should also be preserved. When freedom applies only to some it is no longer freedom.