I studied religion at university and immediately before I became an MP I worked at the then Commission for Racial Equality. As an MP, I’ve given a lot of thought to how religious belief can be accommodated in our largely secular society, where equality is often held in direct opposition to it. The latest stress-point is the current controversy over the niqab, or veil.
Some people, I notice, say that the niqab issue is too complicated for most of us to access – its rarified nature makes the subject the preserve of theological ‘experts’. Others are apt to take a dogmatic political position from the outset and see the issue in terms of state authoritarianism. I disagree with both these perspectives.
Here, it’s useful to deploy Occam’s Razor to shave that unnecessary complexity off the debate; that way we can all access a matter of public dialogue that has great significance for the nature of the society we live in.
Islamic scholars are entirely divided upon the role of the niqab; there is great dispute as to whether wearing the niqab is required or desirable in the Islamic faith. It is not necessary, therefore, for us to be experts in order to play a part in this aspect of public policy debate – quite the opposite. Instead, the central question is whether there is good reason in our free society to constrain people from wearing the niqab when our default position is of course to allow people to choose whatever form of dress they wish. What would ‘good reason’ constitute and when, if ever, might it apply?
This week, for example, a judge decided that unless judges and juries are able to see the face of a defendant then justice will be impeded; he ruled that the scale of the constraint upon freedom is justified by the importance of due legal process, and therefore banned a defendant from wearing the niqab when giving evidence. This seems, to me, well-judged, reasonable and proportionate (but for balance, here is Joshua Rosenberg writing in The Guardian with a dissenting view). Although the judge was forced to balance one human right off against another, in the end his decision was based upon practicality.
Another debate has grown around use of the niqab in schools and colleges. It’s been rooted in ‘practicality’ too. A university banned the niqab last week, but then backed down in the face of opposition amongst its students. It seems to me that the university, which deployed an argument based upon security, was on unsteady ground. It’s possible that there’s recently been a spate of people misusing ID cards containing electronic chips – men using women’s IDs to access halls of residence while wearing a niqab, perhaps, or niqab-wearers sitting exams on behalf of others, say – but the university didn’t state this explicitly and frankly both look like wildly unlikely scenarios. It seems more likely that the university had other reasons for seeking a ban and used ‘security’ as a proxy. If this was the case then it is quite right that the decision has now been reversed. The ‘practical’ argument in this case has failed.
In schools, pedagogy and, in some cases, health and safety, have been put forward as practical reasons for banning the niqab. However, as has been pointed out on Twitter, blind people can both teach and be taught, so while for teachers it’s not ideal for a child’s face not to be visible, just like it’s not ideal to be blind, it’s probably possible to work through. Similarly, health and safety issues which relate to dress can usually be fixed by agreement. There may be a hit, of course, in that a child not concentrating fully or one unhappy about, say, bullying, is less likely to be noticed as quickly if their face is not visible. But perhaps that could be a choice for parents, in the same way as they can make good or bad decisions when it comes to placing their children in particular schools?
No, mandatory education doesn’t, I think, let us off the hook on practical grounds. Instead, it forces us to accept that at root we have a value judgement to make.
I’m sympathetic to the plight of constituents, often Roman Catholics, whose religious belief leads them to conclude that, for example, homosexuality is morally inferior to heterosexuality. In Scotland, the term ‘bigot’ is often applied to them – this is ironic since in Scotland, historically and today, Catholics have been the main victims of bigotry and not the other way around. Such people often argue that ‘equality’ (of, in this case, sexuality) is simply a claim competing with their belief, and a charge that they’re ‘bigots’ closes down space for the free practice of religion. They are correct that there is a trend for principles of equality to trump religious belief. That’s not a chance trend, but one we’ve chosen as a society. It’s therefore essential that at such ‘equality vs faith’ pinchpoints, we do all we can to enable those people affected to continue to practice their own faith, albeit within the parameters of the law.
When it comes to children being sent to school in niqabs, a tiny minority practice, it’s tempting for politicians to evade the nub of the problem by leaving it up to schools to decide for themselves whether to permit face-covering or not. In the end, though, that’s entirely unsatisfactory. Veiling a child’s face explicitly ensures that our legally agreed and shared notions of equality amongst and between children are suspended in respect of gender.
This is no different from accepting from pupils at school, and their parents, a rejection of our other deep-rooted principles of equality which forbid discrimination on the basis of race, disability and sexuality. We do not delegate to schools the power to permit discrimination on any of these bases, and so it should be with gender equality.
It is one thing for an adult to make a decision of faith to reject gender equality, provided they remain within the law. It is quite another for an adult to give up his or her daughter’s equality on her behalf .
On the basis of religious freedom, it would be wrong for us to constrain the wearing of the niqab by adults for any reason other than powerfully-argued practical ones. But on the basis of equality, it is equally wrong for us to permit children to be discriminated against.