An MP has said that there should be a “national debate” about whether Muslim girls should be allowed to wear the veil at school – in the interests of their “freedom of choice”.
Jeremy Browne said that the state should consider stepping in to protect young Muslim women from having the veil “imposed” on them.
If your eyes are currently rolling so far backwards in your head that it’s difficult to continue reading, we understand, but bear with us. Browne, a Liberal Democrat and one-time Home Office minister (who coincidentally also happens to be a white man), told the Telegraph that he thinks a veil ban is a subject worthy of discussion – despite the fact that he feels “instinctively” uncomfortable with the idea.
“I think this is a good topic for national debate,” said Browne.
“People of liberal instincts will have competing notions of how to protect and promote freedom of choice,” he continued, adding that he himself is “instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice”.
However, Browne believes that there “is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children 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,” says the MP.
Of course, banning the veil would be a perfect example of the imposition of religious conformity and the restriction of freedom of expression – but that didn’t stop politicians from lining up to back Browne’s muddled suggestion.
Bob Neill, a vice-chairman of the Conservative Party, said that the government needed to “have a serious conversation” about allowing girls to wear the veil in schools.
Dr Sarah Wollaston, a back-bench Tory MP for the Devon town of Totnes, said that veils are “deeply offensive” and are “making women invisible”.
Wollaston said that it would be a “perverse distortion of freedom if we knowingly allowed the restriction of communication in the very schools and colleges which should be equipping girls with skills for the modern world”. According to data from Devon County Council, just 201 people in Totnes’ ward of South Ham identify as Muslim – less than 0.3% of the ward’s total population.
Guidance from the Department for Education states that individual institutions should make it possible for various religious beliefs to be accommodated, and the right to a particular religious dress code is safeguarded by the Human Rights Act 1998.
Watch: Muslim women share their thoughts on the hijab for #WorldHijabDay
Browne’s comments are not the only instance this week where the right to express religious beliefs through clothing has been questioned. On Tuesday, the EU’s highest court ruled that companies are now allowed to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols at work, in a decision that was widely interpreted as a comment on Muslim women wearing headscarves and welcomed by Europe’s ascendant far-right parties.
Activist and academic Warda el-Kaddouri said that the “ban on religious and political symbols feels to me as a disguised ban on the hijab.”
She told Al Jazeera: “I cannot think of another symbol that will affect hundreds of thousands of people in Europe.
“By stating that veiled women can simply take off their hijab, you imply that the empowerment of women to be in control of their own body and to make individual decisions is reserved for white women only.”
Kim Lecoyer, president of Belgium-based Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, said that the ruling legitimised religious discrimination.
“The court could and should have seized the opportunity to put a halt to the multiple discriminations faced by Muslim women and protect their fundamental rights, but they chose not to,” she said.
Images: Rex Features