Citing "security reasons", England's Birmingham Metropolitan College has banned the use of religious veils on its campus, thus provoking anger among Muslim students and staff. It was not clear whether the ban also includes Christian women belonging to Anglican, Catholic or Orthodox religious orders who wear habits
It is the so-called 'niqab' veil, which leaves only a small gap for the eyes, that the college has deemed a risk, having decided that individuals should be "easily identifiable at all times" so that all students can study in a "safe and welcoming learning environment." Other clothing now banned by the college includes hoodies, hats and caps.
The ban has sent disturbed the sizeable Muslim community in Birmingham, one of the UK's largest cities. According to The Independent, a 17-year-old girl called the decision ‘discriminatory’ and ‘disgusting," while another student explained that her Muslim peers had had offered to lift their veils and show their faces to security personnel in order to be identified. However, her suggestion has apparently been rejected. The veiling of Muslim women varies from place to place, and from sect to sect. In secularized Muslim-majority countries, women appear unveiled in public while in others they may be entirely covered, as are the women of Afghanistan who are traditionally compelled to have even their eyes covered.
“We have a very robust Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy at Birmingham Metropolitan College, but to ensure that safeguarding is a priority, we have developed our policy alongside student views to ensure we keep them safe,” principal and chief-executive Dame Christine Braddock said to the media. "All prospective students, as well as staff, have been advised of the policy, which will mean that everyone allowed on the premises can understand and know each other.”
A protest against the ban is expected on September 13. Organized on Facebook, much like aspects of the so-called Arab Spring that brought down the governments of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, organizers said “Muslim women already face many challenges in society leading to marginalisation and discrimination. We are under-represented in education and subsequently in public life and in the workforce."
“Decisions like the one taken by the leadership at Matthew Boulton College make things worse for women who already face an uphill battle against endemic discrimination. Brothers welcome, as are non-Muslims who understand the need to preserve the rights of Muslim women and freedom of expression for society as a whole.” Muslim advocacy groups, such as CAIR in the United States, frequently stage protests of this sort to denounce calls for eliminating Muslim dress that covers women's faces. Women wearing the niqab, which covers the face and reveals only the eyes, have been observed in widely disparate locales in the U.S., including Arlington, Virginia, and Flint, Michigan.
Birmingham College’s decision follows the offering of a bill by Philip Hollobone, a Conservative minister of parliament, which proposes a country-wide ban on the niqab. So far, Hollobone has refused to meet with constituents who will not remove their veils.
Hollobone saluted the college for its decision, saying “Congratulations to Birmingham Metropolitan College on its stance. It clearly makes sense for the college authorities to be able to recognise those on its campus and this is simply not possible to do when some students choose to cover their faces.”
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.