The Islamic veil for women

Britain: School helper who refused to remove her veil is sacked

A teaching assistant who refused to remove her Muslim veil in the classroom has been sacked. Aishah Azmi’s dismissal from a Church of England primary school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, followed a lengthy period of suspension over her insistence on wearing the niqab in lessons led by a male teacher. She had already failed to persuade an employment tribunal that she was a victim of religious discrimination and harassment by Kirklees local education authority.

Mrs Azmi, 24, said that it was her Islamic duty to wear the black veil, which covered her face except for a narrow slit at the eyes, in the presence of adult males who were not her blood relatives.

Headfield Junior School argued that its pupils, many of whom are learning to speak English, found it difficult to understand what Mrs Azmi was saying when her mouth was hidden.

In a statement issued yesterday, the LEA said that the school governing body’s staff dismissals committee had recently held a hearing to discuss Mrs Azmi’s case.

“As a result of the hearing, the committee decided to terminate the employment of the employee concerned,” it said.

Shahid Malik, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, said that the Azmi case had not been about religion but about seeking the best possible education for children at the school.

More than 90 per cent of Headfield’s pupils are Muslim, many of them learning English as a second language.

Earlier this year, Ofsted criticised “exceptionally low” standards of achievement by pupils and said that many of the school’s difficulties were caused by “speech and communication problems”.

Mr Malik said: “I’m obviously disappointed that a compromise could not be reached. While I defend her right to wear the veil in society, it’s very clear that her wearing the veil in the classroom inhibits her ability to support children.”

When she was observed during lessons, the tribunal heard that, “it was readily apparent that the children were seeking visual clues from her which they could not obtain because they could not see her facial expressions”.

Mrs Azmi did not wear the veil when she was interviewed for the Headfield post, nor at her first training day, but problems arose soon after she started work on a one-year fixed contract last September. Although the school’s other female Muslim teachers wore a headscarf, Mrs Azmi insisted on wearing the niqab.

Mrs Azmi taught at the school for only a few weeks before being told that she must be unveiled during lessons. Soon after she went on long-term sick leave due to stress. She was suspended on full pay in February and took her case against the school to an employment tribunal which sat for four days in July.

Kirklees LEA renewed Mrs Azmi’s one-year contract after it expired on August 31, even though she was under suspension at the time.

When the tribunal issued its findings last month, it rejected her claims of discrimination and harassment but awarded her £1,000 for “injury to feelings” caused by the way her case was handled.

Mrs Azmi, whose appearance before the tribunal was a test case brought under new religious discrimination regulations, vowed to continue her fight for the right to wear the niqab.

She attacked the Government for treating ethnic minorities “as outcasts” and said that she was “fearful for the consequences for Muslim women in this country”.

Mrs Azmi’s lawyer, Nick Whittingham, of the Kirklees Law Centre, said that he had not yet received a decision in writing following this week’s disciplinary hearing.


Multicultural Manners: Removing a full-face veil at work is simply politeness

Quite a long time ago, having briefly joined the herd of twentysomething backpackers who eternally roam Southeast Asia, I found myself in Bali. Like all the other twentysomethings, I carefully read the Lonely Planet backpacker's guide to Indonesia and learned, among other things, that it was considered improper for women to wear shorts or trousers when entering Balinese temples. I dutifully purchased a Balinese sarong and, looking awkward and foreign, wore it while visiting temples. I didn't want to cause offense.

I thought of that long-ago incident while in London last week, where a full-fledged shouting match has broken out over Islamic women who choose to wear the veil. This particular argument began when a Yorkshire teaching assistant refused to remove her full-face veil-a niqab, which covers the whole face except for the eyes-in the presence of male teachers, which was much of the time. She was fired, she went to court, and a clutch of senior British politicians entered the fray.

Jack Straw, former foreign secretary, called the full-face veil a "visible statement of separation and of difference." Prime Minister Tony Blair added that he could "see the reasons" for the teaching assistant to be suspended from her job. What followed was predictable: accusations of racism, charges of discrimination, and disagreement about whether the veil was even a valid topic of discussion. If Blair and Straw are really concerned about the fate of Islamic women, shouldn't they be more interested in underage marriages, or wife beating, or something more important?

The short answer is yes, probably the politicians should be interested in something more important. But the curious fact is that the veil won't go away as a political issue. The French have banned not only the full veil but also head scarves in schools. Some German regions have banned the head scarf for civil servants, and they are not permitted in Turkish universities at all. Slowly, the issue is coming to the United States: Just this month, a Michigan judge dismissed a small-claims court case filed by a Muslim woman because she refused to remove her full-face veil. Critics call the veil a symbol of female oppression or of a rejection of Western values. Defenders say the veil is a symbol of religious faith and that it allows women to be "free" in a different sense-free from cosmetics, from fashion, and from unwanted male attention. Debate about the veil inevitably leads to discussions of female emancipation, of religious freedom, and of the assimilation, or lack thereof, of Muslim communities in the West.

And yet, at a much simpler level, surely it is also true that the full-face veil-the niqab, burqa, or chador-causes such deep reactions in the West not so much because of its political or religious symbolism, but because it is extremely impolite. Just as it is considered rude to enter a Balinese temple wearing shorts, so, too, is it considered rude, in a Western country, to hide one's face. We wear masks when we want to frighten, when we are in mourning, or when we want to conceal our identities. To a Western child-or even an adult-a woman clad from head to toe in black looks like a ghost. Thieves and actors hide their faces in the West; honest people look you straight in the eye.

Given that polite behavior is required of schoolteachers or civil servants in other facets of their jobs, it doesn't seem to me in the least offensive to ask them to show their faces when dealing with children or the public. If Western tourists can wear sarongs in Balinese temples to show respect for the locals, so, too, can religious Islamic women show respect for the children they teach and for the customers they serve by leaving their head scarves on but removing their full-face veils.

It would, of course, be outrageous if Tony Blair or the French government were to ban veils altogether-just as it is, of course, outrageous that Saudi Arabia bans churches and even forbids priests from entering the country. But just because Christians and Jews are persecuted in some parts of the Muslim world doesn't mean we need to emulate them. In their private lives, Muslim women living in the West should be free to cover or uncover their faces, using veils or head scarves, as they wish.

Still, freedom to practice religion in the West shouldn't imply freedom to hold jobs that impinge on that practice. An Orthodox Jew should not have an absolute right to work in a restaurant that is open only on Saturdays. A Quaker cannot join the Army and then state that his religion prohibits him from fighting. By the same token, a Muslim woman who wants to cover her face has no absolute right to work in a school or an office where face-to-face conversations are part of the job. It isn't religious discrimination or anti-Muslim bias to tell her that she must be polite to the natives, respect the local customs, try to speak some of the local patois-and uncover her face.



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