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Full-Face Veils in Courts, Hospitals and other Workplaces

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

The globalised society in which we now live has many benefits stemming from the intermingling of diverse communities.

Living in a diverse society means that we can experience different food, music and cultures all within the borders of the UK. Cultural diversity also means that we can converse with individuals from different countries and backgrounds and appreciate different ideas and values. On the whole, this is considered a positive development of modern Britain.

However, multiculturalism has also been a divisive issue, especially where cultural values clash. The cultural expression of religious values can be particularly problematic when they conflict with an increasingly secular social order or even legislative provisions that protect other rights.

In the UK, the growth of certain Islamic customs such as the wearing of the burqa has been particularly contentious in certain circumstances. Recent debate has focused on the suitability of full-face veils in work environments where face-to-face communication is considered vital, such as hospitals and courts.

The Issue of Wearing Burqas and Niqabs in Courts and Hospitals

Islamic women wear various forms of headscarf as an expression of modesty. The clothing most at issue are the niqab, a full-face veil that exposes only the eyes, and the burqa which covers the whole face including the eyes, often with only a mesh to enable the wearer to see.

At Blackfriars Crown Court London's in September 2013, Judge Peter Murphy ruled during a case that a Muslim woman could stand trial wearing a full-face veil but must remove it to give evidence.

Furthermore, the UK Government has recently ordered a review into whether NHS staff should be allowed to wear full-face veil while working. It has been argued that communication is integral to a medical practitioner's job and it is questionable whether this can be done whilst wearing a veil. The concern is one of patients being unable to receive proper care from someone with their face covered.

Politicians have not committed to legislating in this regard, intimating that the issue of full-face veils is a professional, not a political one.

Women’s Choice

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has stated that the decision to wear a veil is the individual woman's choice.

However, she has also indicated some circumstances in which it is necessary to remove the niqab such as providing certain types of care in hospital or when giving evidence in court. This approach is widely acknowledged as reasonable given the intimate nature of care and the importance of the demeanour of the witness when giving evidence.

Much of the wider debate over face veils centres on women's autonomy and a societal fear that women may have the niqab imposed on them involuntarily. But this may be over-simplification of a more complex issue, particularly when viewed through a Western lens with which can be difficult to reconcile with these complex, religious-cultural practices.

If regulation is eventually forthcoming, its primary focus is therefore likely to target more practical issues.

Comment

One thing that is clear from this debate is the need for sensible guidelines on the issue of full-face veils in certain public forums and workplaces. There does appear to be a legislative gap at present so institutions and employers must take a common sense approach.

Currently employers must take care not to discriminate against people on grounds of their religion or belief. However, there are certain working environments such as hospitals or courtrooms where it may be appropriate to restrict the wearing of full-face veils for the safety or wellbeing of employees, patients and others.

For specialist advice contact Aneil Balgobin via e-mail ABalgobin@rollingsons.co.uk or by telephone on 0207 611 4848.

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