ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 24

Turkish women in headscarves chant anti-Israeli slogans during a demonstration near a mosque in Istanbul on Friday. Turkey, which is a mainly Islamic country, does not permit the wearing of a face veil or a headscarf in any university in that country, be it state-owned or private. AP

More confusion as the face veil is not lifted

European Notebook by Neville de Silva

If I continue from last week on the saga surrounding the face veil of Muslim women it is for a good reason. Last month it became a much-talked of issue in Britain when an assistant teacher sought legal redress after she was suspended from school for refusing to remove her face veil.

She lost her claim for discrimination before a tribunal which, however, awarded her £1000 for victimisation. She has threatened to appeal the tribunal decision and even hinted that the case may end up before the European Court of Justice that could open up a Pandora's box, given the growing controversy over the use of Muslim religious symbols in offices and other places of work.

This controversy in several countries in Europe has been exacerbated by the actions of Muslim extremists who have resorted to terrorism as acts of revenge against western societies for real or perceived grievances.

If the assistant teacher Aishah Azmi sought redress in the courts to underline her right to wear the face veil as a Muslim woman, the more recent incident that raised the controversy to a new level happened in court itself last week after a legal adviser appearing for a client refused to remove her headwear in court.

The legal adviser, Shabnam Mughal refused to obey an instruction from Judge George Glossop at an immigration tribunal in Stoke-on-Trent. Apparently the judge could not hear Ms. Mughal distinctly because of the veil covering her face and mouth. Twice Judge Glossop had asked her to remove the veil and she twice refused.

The result — the judge adjourned the hearing until he sought the advice of Sir Henry Hodge, a High Court judge who is also the president of the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal (AIT) over which Judge Glossop was presiding at the time.

The sittings of the tribunal were adjourned till tomorrow and what happens then would depend very much on what Sir Henry would have to say, apparently after consulting other senior judges. Whatever the decision it would not bind other courts but obviously it could influence how judges in general would treat the issue if such a situation arose in any of their courts.

Again, whichever way the decision goes it could have a major impact not only on how Muslim women should be dressed- in face veil or not — when they appear in court but also on other occasions in their various professions and vocations.

This is believed to be a unique case here in that the question of a face veil has never figured in a court proceeding before. Nobody has so far mentioned any incidents when Muslim women — perhaps as witnesses or defendants — have appeared in a legal proceeding wearing a face veil. If so were they allowed to do so or were they asked to remove it?

Ms. Mughal, who works for a legal firm, was acting on behalf of a client who was appealing against the decision of the Home Office not to grant a visitor's visa to the UK for a member of his family. "There was a hearing at Stoke-on-Trent. The immigration judge was covering the appeal about a visitor's visa and a legal representative appearing on behalf of a sponsor wore a full face veil. The judge asked her to remove her veil, she refused and there was an adjournment," the Tribunal Services are quoted as saying by "The Times" of London.

The spokesman said that later in the day the judge again asked Ms. Mughal to remove her veil and she again refused and the proceedings were halted to allow for consultations. "In a democracy, a religious person is never asked to forsake their preferred observances. But it would be unreasonable to contend that all religious practices are consistent with all professions," Gary Slapper, the director of the law programme at the Open University told "The Times"

"The British practice, established over eight centuries, is that justice requires good, clear advocacy and it would be difficult to assert that advocacy can be done equally well with or without a full-face veil," he continued.

It would, of course, be interesting to know whether there are Muslim women doctors who wear a face veil when they examine patients. What about women surgeons? If there are Muslim women surgeons are they permitted to wear face veils or would that be strictly prohibited in the operating theatres as they rightly should, because of infection and the obvious dangers to patients.

So are there Muslim women who are medical doctors or surgeons who insist on wearing face veils or even full covered dress during their working hours? If so are they permitted to do so when they practise their professions?

One has not heard of such confrontations. If there were surely they would have been reported and would have made news in the wire services and other media. So what really happens? Does it mean that Muslim women who practise their religion do bend when it comes to practising their profession or vocation? Or is it that wearing the face veil or other symbols of their religion is not compulsory according to the Islamic holy book the Quran which leaves it to the discretion of the individual.

The problem is that there are varying interpretations of what the Quran actually states and therefore for those who are not tutored in the subject it is difficult to reach any conclusion. One supposes that the interpretation would also depend on the religious school one belongs to or one’s own traditions, upbringing and the cultural ethos.

It is interesting to note, for instance, that Turkey, which is a mainly Islamic country, does not permit the wearing of a face veil or a headscarf in any university in that country, be it state-owned or private.

In fact, female members of parliament in the country do not cover their heads. Turkish authorities are so conscious of the country's recent secular history and safeguard it so religiously that the president of Turkey left out of his guest list for the independence day celebrations women who do wear a headscarf. That included the current prime minister's wife who does wear a headscarf.

This insistence on the country's secularism was born with the founding of modern Turkey in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal who later came to be known as Kemal Ataturk, meaning the father of Turks. The modern republic that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman empire underwent political and social change as Kemal Ataturk pushed through a programme of westernisation.

Since then presidents of Turkey have come from among those who stand for a secular Turkey, a position strongly supported by the military that has intervened on occasion when Turkey was seen to drift from the path chartered by the republic's founder.

So in mainly Muslim Turkey, headscarves, seen by secularists as representing Muslim radicalism, are outlawed in public offices, universities, schools and even at official ceremonies. What chance then would a face veil have in secular Turkey striving to enter the European Union.

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