The Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill 2014

In recent days the media circus has inevitably descended upon UK Muslims once again in the form of the debate surrounding the adornment of the niqaab (face veil). 

Whilst it is not my intention to wade into the debate around cultural or religious requirements and obligations in respect of adorning the face veil on this occasion, but it is to create awareness concerning a bill currently going through parliament that could have huge ramifications on society in respect of the prohibition of all types of face coverings in public.

The Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill 2014 was presented to parliament in the form of a Private Members Bill on the 24th June 2013. The Conservative Mr Phillip Hollobone MP widely regarded as being the leading architect behind the bill backed by a number of his parliamentary colleagues are motivated by a desire to see all face coverings being banned from the public sphere within the UK with certain exemptions such as health and safety cited amongst others
Hollobone articulated his argument by declaring that the primary motivating factor behind the bill stemmed from a meeting he had with a Muslim female constituent whose face was concealed during weekly surgery in his constituency. He had argued that he did not feel comfortable speaking to a constituent whose face he could not physically see. The bill at present has gone through the first stage where no debate took place. It is envisaged that the second reading of the bill will take place on the 28th of February 2014 in the House of Commons.

If we analyse the potential impact of the bill, it is not surprising to see that it is the Muslim community and in particular Muslim women who adorn the niqaab are the ones that are being systematically targeted in comparison to other individuals and communities that reside in the UK. Indeed, the chilling prospect of this bill becoming law will send shivers down the spines of those who at this moment in time venture out of their homes and frequent public places wearing the niqaab without the fear of being arrested for committing a criminal offence. However, there is a realistic prospect that if the bill did indeed become law then Muslim women up and down the country who adorn the niqaab will no longer be able to do so. 

One can only begin to envisage a situation where a Muslim women close to home could be charged with committing a criminal offence simply wearing a niqaab when shopping or even visiting the doctors surgery. Indeed, we only have to look at neighbouring France to witness the very impact of the ban on the veil that has undoubtedly affected the Muslim community in recent years. The only positive news emanating from this bill is the fact that Muslim women will still have the freedom to adorn the face veil in private environments such as the family home and private establishments.

In light of this bill and the potential impact it could have on Muslim communities were it to become law in the UK there needs to be a sensible debate amongst Muslim religious and community leaders and policymakers at the heart of government in order to take the heat out of this situation. There is no doubt that the UK is the most tolerant and diverse country in the whole world when it comes to human rights and Muslims as well as others can go about their daily lives without fear and persecution.

Muslims in the UK are rather passive when it comes to lobbying and making a persuasive argument in the defence of freedom of religious expression. However, the time has come for Muslims in the UK to actively get involved in this debate lobbying their local MPís and government ministers by writing letters and sending emails expressing concern over the potential implications of this bill were it to become law. We cannot as Muslims leave it to the few to defend causes that affect the community and have an obligation to get involved in the political process. 

If we standstill and let events pass then do not be surprised that certain individuals will turn their attention to seeking to prohibit the adornment of the veil (hijaab), the beard and Islamic dress in due course. Let us hope that common sense prevails and that the UK still remains the most diverse and tolerant country in the world in respect of cultural and religious freedoms.

By Dr Abdul B Sheikh
Deputy Editor of PI