In a previous report on this site in August, I described how a judge in Hackney, a London suburb, was considering banning a Muslim woman, accused of intimidating a witness, from wearing her burqa in court. The item in contention was the face-covering, or niqab, shown below.
The woman wanted to wear her face covering at all times, but the judge denied that for the time being. There were two issues: how to identify the defendant, and whether the defendant’s face should be shown as a way of judging her credibility. Although the woman’s lawyer suggested that the defendant could be identified by a policewoman outside the courtroom, and then put her veil back on before testimony, the judge nixed that. Others, including myself, see the covering of a face during testimony as a way to hide facial expressions or body language that could be influential, and at any rate religion custom should in such cases take a back seat to common law.
Last Monday’s Guardian describes the upshot: the judge made a compromise in the interest of religious sensibilities:
A Muslim woman must remove her full-face veil when she gives evidence but may wear it at other times during her trial, a judge has ruled.
Judge Peter Murphy’s compromise ruling, which involves screening her from public view in the court when she is not veiled, will set a precedent for how criminal courts deal with defendants who wear a traditional niqab.
The 22-year-old woman from London, referred to in the judgment only as D, says it is against her religious beliefs to show her face in public. She pleaded not guilty to a charge of witness intimidation last week while wearing a veil.
Directions for the trial at Blackfriars crown court, due to take place in November, will also prohibit courtroom artists from making any sketch or drawing of the defendant without her niqab. Only the judge, jury and legal counsel will be able to see D’s face when she gives evidence.
. . . He continued: “Whether or not there is an obligation to wear the niqab is not a subject of universal agreement within Islam; rather, it is a choice made by individual women on a personal basis.” That choice, nonetheless, should be “respected as a manifestation of religion or belief”.
That last bit seems confused to me. If there’s disagreement about whether wearing it is obligatory (which presumes that it’s sometimes not a choice), then it can’t always be a choice. And one must consider what manifestations of religion are publicly acceptable. Certainly polygamy and child marriage, which is a manifestation of some Mormon sects’ beliefs, is nothing to be respected at all. I am a bit conflicted about burqas and niqabs—after all, being brainwashed while young isn’t exactly a “choice”—I tend to be against banning burqas in public except in places like banks, public buildings, and courts where facial identification is important. Nor should they be worn in airports, and I quail at the thought of being taught in a classroom by a woman whose face is covered.
But I still remember a group of young Muslim women at Middle East Technical University in Turkey telling me why they favored the Turkish headscarf ban. If it were rescinded, they said, other Muslim women would shame them, calling them “bad Muslims” for failing to conform to the dress code. (There’s nothing in the Qur’an, by the way, that mandates covering a woman’s body.) One shouldn’t rule out the effect of social pressure when arguing that Muslim dress is “a woman’s choice.”
The Muslim Council’s “sensible” solution, of course, is to permit women to wear the niqab constantly.
. . . The Muslim Council of Britain called for a “sensible, non-hysterical conversation” over the issue of the niqab following the ruling but added that women should be allowed to wear the veil if they want to.
“She is entitled to wear it in private and in public,” Meek said last week. “That right to wear the niqab also extends to the courtroom. There is no legislation in the UK in respect of the wearing of the niqab. There is no law in this country banning it.
“The jury will be able to determine her demeanour while wearing the veil. Demeanour is not just how their mouth moves, it is how their head moves, their eyes move, their hands move. That will be fully visible to the jury and no bar to her giving evidence.”
“Not just how their mouth moves”! That means that, of course, there are revealing facial expressions that can be hidden by the niqab. This is disingenuous.
Sadly, we’ll never know how many Muslim women wear burqas and niqabs from free choice: that is, if they suffered no penalty at all for wearing other forms of dress. Social pressure and indoctrination in the Muslim community is often so strong that the concept of “choice” loses all meaning. Given that, I see no obvious way to free those women in repressive Muslim countries who don’t want to be enveloped in a sack.