CANTERBURY, England (RNS)  A  senior judge, leading members of Parliament and human rights activists are calling for an urgent debate on the explosive issue of whether Muslim women should be allowed to wear veils when they testify in court.

A woman wearing a niqab (far right) taps a nap in the London underground subway.

A woman wearing a niqab (far right) taps a nap in the London underground subway. Photo courtesy Kamyar Adl via Flickr

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The call for national debate follows Judge Peter Murphy’s Sept. 16 ruling that a 22-year-old Muslim woman standing trial on charges of intimidating a witness at a north London mosque must remove her facial veil, called a niqab, when testifying so the jury can better evaluate her facial expressions.

If she refuses, the woman — known only as Defendant D — could face a prison sentence for contempt of court.

The judge’s ruling came days after Birmingham Metropolitan College overturned its ruling that students, staff and visitors must remove face coverings.  The ruling followed protests by Muslims who launched a petition against the college decision, attracting 8,000 signatures in less than 48 hours.

These two cases indicate that a national debate on veils, particularly the niqab, which covers all but the eyes, is long overdue.

It is an issue that has already prompted legislation in continental Europe, most notably in France, where full facial veils were banned in public places two years ago.

France has an estimated Muslim population of  6 million. In Britain there are roughly 280,000 Muslims.

“Given the ever-increasing diversity of society in England and Wales, this is a question which may be expected to arise more and more frequently and to which an answer must be provided,” Murphy said in his ruling. “The niqab has become the elephant in the courtroom.”

He added: “I express the hope that Parliament or a higher court will review this question sooner rather than later and provide a definitive statement of the law to trial judges.”

Conservative Parliament Member Philip Hollobone accused Murphy of “pandering” to the Muslim defendant.

“I am disgusted that the judge is bending over backwards to accommodate someone who clearly does not want to stick to the rules like everyone else,” he said.


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