A British court on Monday ruled that a Muslim woman facing criminal charges of witness intimidation must remove her face veil while on the stand giving evidence in court, but that she can wear it while sitting in the dock.
The ruling comes amid shifting sentiments in the UK and across Europe about how far to accept some Islamic cultural practices when they clash with a secular state.
Judge Peter Murphy, of the Blackfriars Crown Court in south London, ruled it is “crucial” for jurors to see the face of the 22-year-old woman when she testifies in her trial on charges of intimidating a witness at a London mosque in June.
The unnamed woman, who converted to Islam and started wearing the head-to-toe covering known as a niqab or full veil last year, wore a niqab last week when she pleaded not guilty to charges against her. But her plea came after the arresting female police officer identified her in a separate room. (British laws restrict publication of details of an ongoing criminal trial).
“There is a pressing need for a court to provide a clear statement of the powers trial judges have to deal with cases where a woman wearing a niqab attends the court,” Judge Murphy said. “The niqab has become the elephant in the courtroom.”
“Given the ever-increasing diversity of society in England and Wales, this is a question which may be expected to arise more and more frequently and to which an answer must be provided,” he said.
London has a generally free atmosphere for religious behavior and dress, and more women from an orthodox background are seen wearing a full length veil than in most European cities.
Yet the circumstances of a British defendant facing criminal charges who claims that religious accommodation rights trump the rights of the state court – appeared to go too far for Judge Murphy.
“No tradition or practice, whether religious or otherwise, can claim to occupy such a privileged position that the rule of law, open justice and the adversarial trial process are sacrificed to accommodate it,” he stated. “That is not discrimination against religion, it is a matter of upholding the rule of law in a democratic society.”
European nations like France and Belgium have initiated anti-burqa laws in recent years. Under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, France became in 2011 the first European Union member to ban women from wearing the full veil in public spaces.
While Mr. Sarkozy called the full face covering a “sign of subservience and debasement” for women, the ultimate rationale for passing the French law was one of security.
(Muslims in France were divided over the burqa issue, with many protesting that it was a political ploy by the French right to collect votes at the polls by fomenting populist sentiments against minorities.)
Belgium passed a similar ban that year, and other European countries such as Denmark, Spain and Italy have debated it.
In Britain, representatives of various Muslim communities disagreed on the merits on the ruling.
Ajmal Masroor, a spokesman for the moderate Islamic Society of Britain, said the face veil was a “cultural and personal choice” rather than a religious one.
“Islam does not require women to wear a face covering so this is personal choice. I totally agree that women should be allowed to wear one if they wish but not if it interferes with a judicial process or is a security risk,” he said.
Palha Ahmad, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, said the decision to wear the veil may have implications for women but he thought she should be allowed to. He said a jury might infer something if a woman chose to wear a niqab, or the woman, if forced to unveil her face, might react in a way that jury members aren’t used to.
“Forcing her to take it off might deter other people from coming forward and giving evidence at other trials,” he said. “Besides we are talking about a small number of women who wear the veil and an even smaller number who might find themselves in this situation.”
Stephen Evans, of the National Secular Society, said niqabs and burqas should be banned from public institutions like courts and classrooms or places like shopping malls.
“It’s a delicate line to tread but bringing in bans can create victims and claims that Muslims are being discriminated against. More young people are converting to Islam in this country and they’re often more radicalized that older generations so you don’t want to create a feeling of injustice. But it’s good to have this debate,” he said.
The issue does not seem a legislative priority for Prime Minister David Cameron. In an interview with the BBC, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it should not be the business of the state to tell people whether they wear veils or whether they have crosses round their neck, for example.
“The exception, is of course where there are security checks and airports for instance, where the full veil is not appropriate and I do feel there is an issue with teachers in the classroom,” he said. “I think they’re entitled to expect they can address their students and their pupils face-to-face and I think that is an issue and I believe it is a case where the full veil is perhaps not appropriate.”