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Debate over Islamic veil in UK

With Muslim clothing becoming more visible in recent years, most "Old Europe" countries like Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, have all had to address the same question to varying degrees.

india Updated: Oct 26, 2006 16:06 IST

Britain is the latest European country to become embroiled in a row over the full-face veil, which reflects wider issues about the extent and nature of Muslim integration into Western society.

With Muslim clothing becoming more visible in recent years, most "Old Europe" countries like Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, have all had to address the same question to varying degrees.

According to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the niqab -- where a woman's face is entirely covered except for her eyes -- has often become the most noticeable "mark of separation" between communities.

Earlier this month he said that similar discussions to the one in Britain were happening in most European countries and that wearing the veil masked a broader debate about integration.

In Britain, where the July 7, 2005 suicide bomb attacks held up the country's much-cherished "multicultural" model to new scrutiny, the debate has centred on the niqab, even though it is worn by few Muslim women.

Last week, a 24-year-old Muslim teaching assistant who was suspended for refusing to remove the niqab in the classroom, lost claims of discrimination and harassment against her local education authority.

Aishah Azmi, who is planning to appeal, alleged the veil made no difference to her competency as a bilingual support worker, dismissing school claims that it was a bar to face-to-face communication.

As in many European countries, in Britain -- home to 1.6 million Muslims mainly of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian origin -- decisions on dress codes are mainly taken locally.

But France, which has Europe's largest Muslim population at about five million, is rare in having adopted legislation about the issue at national level.

The wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in state schools, including the Muslim veil, was outlawed in March 2004 to widespread controversy.

But although few women in France wear the niqab, it still causes concern to some.

One lawmaker in April called for new legislation imposing two-month jail terms or 3,750-euro (4,700-dollar) fines for violating the principle that "any person on French soil must have their face uncovered for ease of recognition and identification".

Jacques Maynard, from the governing right-of-centre Union for a Popular Movement, views the niqab as "a violation of the equality of the sexes, a very serious threat to the will to live together".

In the Netherlands, where 5.8 per cent of the population is Muslim and female public servants can wear the veil "unless they interfere with safety, functionality or impartiality", the debate is centred on the little-worn burka.

The Dutch parliament last year voted to ban the burka—which covers the entire body and head—in public places but the law has not yet been applied.

The justice ministry has said such a ban would go against other anti-discrimination legislation.

In Germany, home to more than 3.2 million Muslims, mostly of Turkish origin, some states have changed the law while others are in the process of legislating on religious symbols in schools.

For example, in the conservative-run south-west state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, teachers were banned from wearing the veil at school.

A new law stated that such clothing could disturb "the peace of an establishment and put into doubt the need for state secularity".

But last July, a court in Stuttgart allowed a female primary school teacher—herself a Muslim convert—to wear an Islamic headscarf in a state school.

In mid-October, high-profile Germans of Turkish origin, including two female lawmakers, launched an appeal to Muslims not to wear the headscarf to demonstrate their integration.

All of which stands at odds with secular Muslim Turkey, which hopes to join the European Union, where headscarves are banned in civic spaces, including schools, universities and official buildings.

In Italy, where 1.7 per cent of the population is Muslim, Prime Minister Romano Prodi reignited the issue last week by saying: "If a woman wants to wear the veil, all well and good."

But he added that "good sense" demanded that her face should not be covered.

There were clear signs, however, that it is still a sensitive subject.

Last week, Italian lawmaker Daniela Santanche, from the right-wing National Alliance, was called an infidel by a Muslim preacher after saying on television that wearing the veil was not required by the Koran.

Santanche was offered police protection while right- and left-wing politicians rallied in her support, with calls that Muslims needed to integrate and accept the rules of democracy.

Old, and scarcely-enforced, laws banning any appearance in public while masked have been resurrected although wearing headscarves in schools is not outlawed.

Similar legislation has been enacted in parts of Belgium -- where 4.5 per cent of the population is Muslim -- based on those originally designed to govern the wearing carnival masks.

First Published: Oct 26, 2006 16:06 IST