“We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression,” a Liberal Democrat Minister told The Telegraph. “But there is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children to be unable to express personal choices about other areas like buying alcohol, smoking or getting married,” Browne said. “That would apply to Christian minorities in the Middle East just as much as religious minorities here in Britain,” he added. The chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, a group that works with young Muslims in the UK, said he was “disgusted” by Browne’s comments. “This is another example of the double standards that are applied to Muslims in our country by some politicians,” Mohammed Shafiq said. “Whatever one’s religion they should be free to practice it according to their own choices and any attempt by the government to ban Muslim women will be strongly resisted by the Muslim community.” The debate comes after Birmingham Metropolitan College changed its rules last week in an unprecedented move. It previously banned Muslim students from wearing niqabs – a veil that leaves only a slot for the eyes. An online petition against the ban was signed by 9,000 in 48 hours and forced the institution to drop the ban, which had been in place for eight years. An 17-year-old girl who started the protest told the Birmingham Mail the veil ban was embarrasing. “It upsets me that we are being discriminated against. I don’t think my niqab prevents me from studying or communicating with anyone – I’ve never had any problems in the city before,” the teenager, who didn’t want to be named, said. Birmingham Metropolitan College is thought to be the only college in the UK to have banned the niqab, along with hoodies, hats and caps, so that individuals are “easily identifiable at all times”. “They haven’t provided us with another alternative. We said we would happily show the men at security our faces so they could check them against our IDs, but they won’t let us,” another student at the college, 17-year-old Imaani Ali, told the Mail. Liberal Democratic leader Nick Clegg said he was also “uneasy” about the Birmingham ban. “I’m really quite uneasy about anyone being told what they have to wear and I certainly would need to understand why,” Mr Clegg stated on his weekly LBC 97.3 radio phone-in show. The guidelines from the Department for Education state that under the Equality Act 2010, schools must not discriminate against, harass or victimise pupils because of their: sex; race; disability; religion or belief. “Where a school has good reason for restricting an individual’s freedoms, for example, to ensure effective teaching, the promotion of cohesion and good order in the school, the prevention of bullying, or genuine health and safety or security considerations, then the restriction of an individual’s rights to manifest their religion or belief may be justified.” Back in 2007, a High Court judge rejected a pupil’s appeal to be allowed to wear the niqab in class. Currently in the UK, schools and colleges are given carte-blanche to set their own uniform policies. Headteachers in the UK can order students to remove veils for security reasons, however. David Cameron’s spokesman said last week that the British Prime Minister would be in favor of banning controversial Muslim veils in his children’s schools. His nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son attend a Church of England junior school in West London. “That would apply to every school, every single one, including the ones that his children may attend. What’s important is to back the right of schools to set their own uniform policy and that’s what the government will keep doing,” David Cameron’s spokesman replied. The Conservative leader may be pushed to reconsider the rules on veils in schools. “From a security point of view you need to be able to see the faces of people – in the House of Commons when we go through a division [to vote] we are not allowed to cover our face. There is a security issue here that is worth debating,” the Tory MP for Wellingborough, Peter Bone, told The Telegraph. Sarah Wollaston, the MP for Totnes, has also suggested that the niqab should be banned in schools and colleges, saying the veils are “deeply offensive”. “It would be a perverse distortion of freedom if we knowingly allowed the restriction of communication in the very schools and colleges which should be equipping girls with skills for the modern world. We must not abandon our cultural belief that women should fully and equally participate in society,” she told the newspaper. In another much-debated case, a judge on Monday allowed a 22-year-old London-based Muslim woman to stand trial in full face veil, but ruled she must remove it to give evidence. The woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, earlier said it is against her religious beliefs to show her face in public, and her lawyer insisted that the refusal of permission to wear a veil would breach the young woman’s human rights. Apart from the UK, a push for anti-Muslim laws has been recently made in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. Last week leaders of France’s 6 million Muslims were outraged by the new ‘secularism charter’ designed to toughen rules banning religion from schools. Many Muslims fear that stricter laws at schools and universities would only deepen the gap between religions, and step up acts of racism and hatred against them. In 2004, France passed a law banning schoolchildren from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as Muslim headscarves or Sikh turbans, but the law excluded universities. Now the High Council of Integration (HCI) wants to see the same rules applied to universities. In August, the research institute founded by the French government recommended prohibiting students from wearing religious symbols, such as Christian crucifixes, Jewish kippah skullcaps and Muslim headscarves.
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