The issue of religious-inspired face coverings worn by some Muslim women has caused controversy in many countries in Europe. For some people, these face coverings symbolise repression and a regressive attitude to women. For those who choose to wear it, it symbolises the defence of women’s modesty against the assault of modern society, and is a statement of identity. Islamic inspired clothing for women can take several forms, from simple headscarfs to items such as the full burqa, which covers all of the body, with the woman able to see out through a grille-like part at the front.
This issue has been controversial in various countries for nearly a decade. In 2004, France introduced a law which banned all visible religious symbols in schools. Two years later, the issue of religious and cultural flexibility in school uniforms came to be heard by the top court in the United Kingdom. A pupil insisted on wearing the jilbab, a long and lose coat which does not cover the face to a school which already had some choice, in that it allowed a loose fitting trouser outfit known as the shalwar kameez. She claimed that she needed to wear the jilbab due to her (or her family’s) interpretation of Islamic dress, and refused to attend school as long as she was not allowed to wear a jilbab. She brought legal action against the school. The top court in the United Kingdom ruled that there was no breach of her right to manifest her religion, and that even if there was, it was justified.
The issue of face coverings in schools has also been debated as to whether it is appropriate for teachers to wear them. The issue has also been brought to prominence in cases that are the other way around with allegations that teachers in a state school were forced as part of their job to wear the niqab, a full face veil that covers the entire face other than the eyes.
Where should schools draw the line on religious and cultural clothing – and what side of the line do veils fall on?
N.B. This is a modified junior version of the slightly broader Debatabase debate ‘This House would ban religious symbols in public buildings’, for people who are in school. The original provides more detailed explanations.
 House of Lords, ‘Judgments - R (on the application of Begum (by her litigation friend, Rahman)) (Respondent) v. Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High School (Appellants)’, parliament.uk, 2006, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200506/ldjudgmt/jd060322/begum-1.htm
 United Kingdom Employment Appeal Tribunal, ‘Employment appeal tribunal before the honourable Mr Justice Wilkie, Mr P Smith, Mr S Yeboah, Appellan Mrs A Azmi, Respondent Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council’, bailii.org, 2007, http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2007/0009_07_3003.html
 Dixon, Hayley, ‘Non-Muslim teachers ‘forced to wear veil’ at faith school’, The Telegraph, 20 September 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10322872/Non-Muslim-teachers-forced-to-wear-veil-at-faith-school.html
Face coverings in particular divide men and women. Face veil is seen by some as a symbol of the oppression of women, because in some countries it is mandatory, as was the case in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
When worn in Europe, with equality and democracy, it can be seen as a rejection of such oppression – this is why Belgium banned it. Islamic dress rules are often stricter for women than men.
It’s not seen as oppressive by those who wear it – instead they see at as a way of preserving their modesty and privacy. Everyone has their own tolerance as to how much clothing makes them comfortable. It’s a personal decision that should be left to the individual.
Like in society as a whole, religious symbols are divisive. It marks some out as different from the others, which could cause bullying. They may also be impractical for PE, technology or science lessons where they get in the way.
Face veils also mean that people’s lips cannot be seen when they are speaking, which can cause problems with communication (especially with any D/deaf people who lip read). For this reason, a UK court considered it reasonable for a school to not permit a teacher to teach while wearing a face veil.
 BBC News, ‘School sacks woman after veil row’, 24 November 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/bradford/6179842.stm. See court case listed higher up for full legal decision (resource for teachers).
Intolerant schools are a problem because they don’t allow freedom of religious expression. In a free society, pupils should appreciate the different faiths of their fellow pupils and respect them. Without that respect, they may just end up going to separate schools which is even more divisive.
As for safety, it also prevents some potential hazards such as hair getting caught in machines or flames, which when hidden won’t be a problem.
Religious symbols, such as the veil divide society. When some Muslim women wear the veil, it creates pressure on others to do so as well. Pressure comes from wanting to fit in, and pressure from other people in the community seeing those who don’t wear the veil as being somehow less religious.
Allowing it in schools makes it more visible to non-Muslims, making them more likely to perceive it as a core part of the faith. It then gives the impression to outsiders that Islam is more extreme than it really is.
No-one is in a vacuum – everyone has social pressures affecting what they wear.
Banning veils itself is divisive and will create strong reactions in highly religious communities. Framing laws that only ban the veil could be seen as an attack on Islam, and lead Muslim communities to think they are being unfairly targeted. The result will be that they won’t co-operate with people of other faiths. This would be bad for society and make extremists more influential.
 Huffington Post, ‘France Bans Burqas: A Look At Islamic Veil Laws in Europe’, 4 November 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/11/burqa-policies-europe_n_847575.html#s263174&title=France_
As a face covering is very obvious, it would be a school to check to see if someone is wearing one. France and Turkey already have attempted such bans on headscarves, which do not cover the face.
This could be enforced by teachers, not police.
Deciding what people can and can’t wear should not be the responsibility of schools. Enforcement may be potentially simple but only at the cost of creating a conflict between schools and their Muslim pupils and staff.
This measure would just be seen as a way of targeting Muslims. Religious symbols would be used as a way of singling out Muslims as a cause of division when any such problem is bigger than any one community. Muslims would be right to ask why the veil is banned while the Kirpan, a small ceremonial knife carried by Sikhs so potentially dangerous, is allowed.
A ban on face coverings wouldn’t be a target to a particular faith as it would also ban veils that might be desired by people of other faiths as well. Moreover only a small minority of Muslim women in Europe wear the veil; in France with 5million Muslims it is thought that only 350 wear the face veil.
 O’Neill, Brendan, ‘There’s nothing enlightened about burka-bashing’, Spiked, 19 September 2013, http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/14046#.UoNqHuImZI0
Wearing religious and cultural symbols are a matter of personal choice. Getting the government involved in such a personal matter is a breach of privacy. The Belgian ban has been unpopular amongst some people because those who want to wear it are being limited to staying within their homes. In France a ban on the burqa has led to increasing abuse of those who do wear it; 94% of victims of anti-Muslim physical and verbal abuse are women.
 Irving, Helene, ‘France’s “Burqa Ban” Enforcing Not Solving Inequality’, Open Society Foundations, 13 April 2012, http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/france-s-burqa-ban-enforcing-not-solving-inequality
The veil is a visible symbol intended to be seen by others so it is clearly not just personal. It could be used to conceal identity, for example in the UK a group of robbers disguised themselves in burqas to steal over a million pounds of watches in Selfridges.
 Davenport, Justin, ‘Selfridges 'burka gang' detectives arrest five men in dawn raids’, London Evening Standard, 22 October 2013, http://www.standard.co.uk/news/crime/selfridges-burka-gang-detectives-arrest-five-men-in-dawn-raids-8896307.html
If one form of religious symbolism is banned, it would be difficult to justify not banning others. If the government considers face coverings which would be seen as an attack on Muslims (while only a small minority of Muslim women wear them, they are not popular in other faiths apart from for specific uses). If the motive for such a ban is integration and uniformity, items such as the Sikh turban and potentially the Christian cross should be banned as well.
Each religious symbol should be taken on its own merits. Unlike many other religious manifestations, the veil covers the face, which has its own problems in Western societies because it makes it harder to understand someone wearing it. This is not about the religious symbol of the burqa but about the communication problem it creates.
Religion is intimately linked to culture and people’s identity. To many people who believe that religion, it is very important to them. In a society with respect for human rights, people are able to not just have their religious beliefs, but put them in to practice.
Not all Muslims believe that a full veil is a necessary part of their religion or culture. On the other side must be considered a culture that believes in being able to see the people who you are dealing with. Communication is an important part of culture, and visual contact is an important part of communication.