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Deputy Prime Minister said veil is also not appropriate at airport securityDr Sarah Wollaston for Totnes, Devon, say schools ‘collude with making women invisible’ if they allow niqabComments come after Birmingham Metropolitan College reverses ban on full-face veils after students protest
Earlier this week a judge allowed a woman to give evidence in court wearing a burqa for the first time
Religious veils should not be allowed in the classroom, Nick Clegg suggested today as Lib Dems called for a national debate on the issue.
The Deputy Prime Minister said it was ‘inappropriate’ for students to wear a full veil during lessons because teachers needed to see their faces.
And Downing Street went further, saying David Cameron believed bans could be imposed in ‘other institutions’.
It came after Tory MP Sarah Wollaston called for a ban in all schools because ‘they make women invisible.
The issue has erupted after a college’s U-turn last week on banning students wearing veils.
A judge is due to decide today on whether a Muslim woman can stand trial while wearing one.
Mr Clegg was careful to say he did not want a legal ban on the wearing of religious items of clothing.
He told the BBC: ‘I think there is a debate going on already in households and communities up and down the country.
‘My own view, very strongly held, is that we shouldn’t end up like other countries issuing edicts or laws from parliament telling people what they should or should not wear.
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‘This is a free country and people going about their own business should be free to wear what they wish. I think it is very un-British to start telling people what pieces of clothing they should wear.
‘I think there are exceptions to that as far as the full veil is concerned – security at airports for instance. It is perfectly reasonable for us to say the full veil is clearly not appropriate there.
‘And I think in the classroom, there is an issue of course about teachers being able to address their students in a way where they can address them face to face. I think it is quite difficult in the classroom to be able to do that.’
‘I do think there is an issue with teachers in the classroom…that might be an area where a full veil might be inappropriate.’
Home Office minister Jeremy Browne suggested the Government should consider banning Muslim girls and young women from wearing the veil in public places.
His intervention was sparked by a row over the decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to drop a ban on the wearing of full-face veils amid public protests.
Mr Browne said he was ‘instinctively uneasy’ about restricting religious freedoms, but he added there may be a case to act to protect girls who were too young to decide for themselves whether they wished to wear the veil or not.
‘I am instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice,’ he told the Daily Telegraph.
‘But there is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children to be unable to express personal choices about other areas like buying alcohol, smoking or getting married.
‘We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression.’
Number 10 said the Prime Minister believes that schools should have the right to set their own uniform policies.
At a regular Westminster briefing, the spokesman suggested other institutions could also look to ban veils.
He said: ‘I actually think there is a position of principle here, which is around the ability of institutions such as schools, to set a, in the case of schools, clearly a uniform policy, so I think that is already there.
He added: ‘The Prime Minister doesn’t take the view, doesn’t believe, that Parliament should legislate on what people do and don’t wear on their local high street.
‘Nonetheless, that is not incompatible with institutions having dress codes. Schools are an example but it is for institutions to take those decisions.
‘There are legal frameworks within which all institutions operate.’
Last week, Birmingham Metropolitan College was forced to drop its ban on students wearing full facial veils on its campus after a protest. A 9,000-name petition saw its principal back down on its policy after it was accused of ‘Islamophobia’.
The ban stopped Muslim pupils wearing the niqab, the full facial veil in which only the eyes are visible, or the burqa where the eyes are covered with mesh. But the college was attacked for its stance by local councillors, MPs and the National Union of Students.
However Conservative MP Dr Sarah Wollaston said some women found the niqab ‘deeply offensive’ and should not be accused of being bigoted for criticising them.
She made the comments on Twitter following a college’s U-turn last week on banning students wearing veils and before a judge is due to decide today on whether a Muslim woman can stand trial while wearing one.
Dr Wollaston, the MP for Totnes in Devon, said: ‘The niqab should be banned within schools and colleges; how on earth do they promote equality when they collude with making women invisible?’
She also wrote: ‘A general ban on the niqab simply won’t happen in the UK but that doesn’t mean that it should be endorsed by schools or courts.’
Her comments were met by a backlash from supporters of the veil, but she stood her ground against the angry criticism.
The MP said her view was ‘not bigotry’ and that this accusation was ‘the cudgel used to repress debate’. She added: ‘Feminists should be allowed to say that they find the niqab deeply offensive without being accused of being bigoted or Islamaphobic.’
Among the tweets hitting back at the MP’s comments were from Muslim commentator Mohammed Ansar. He said: ‘Poor Sarah Wollaston’s twitter feed has become a total car crash of bigotry, Islamophobia, historical ignorance and exceptionalism.’
He added: ‘Do you accept and support the right of a woman to dress as she wishes?’
One woman asked the MP on Twitter: ‘How about asking a woman who wears niqab what she thinks about her freedom? Or does her opinion not matter?’
The wearing of veils in public faces another test in court today.
A judge at Blackfriars Crown Court in London allowed a woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, to plead not guilty while wearing her veil last month.
She argued she was unable to remove the face covering in the presence of men for religious reasons, but as a compromise she allowed a female police officer in a room next to the courtroom to lift it to check her identity.
The judge will now decide on whether she will be able to wear her veil during her trial for intimidating a witness, as he feared jurors would not be able to see her facial expressions during questioning.
A veil ban at the Birmingham college had been in place for eight years without protest.
But an anonymous prospective student complained to her local paper, saying that she was being discriminated against, and the publicity sparked an online campaign.
Birmingham Metropolitan College is believed to be the only college in the UK to have banned the niqab. Some 43 per cent of its 44,000 students come from ethnic groups that are non white.
An online petition was signed by 9,000 people, amid rumours that the college was also planning to ban prayers on its premises.
The college was forced to amend its policy, which also covered hoodies and hats, which had been brought in to make sure students were always ‘easily identifiable’.
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