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« on: Jun 29, 2009 06:53 PM »

Catholic school bars Muslim teacher who refused to remove face veil so staff could identify her

By James Tozer
Last updated at 5:57 PM on 29th June 2009

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Controversial: Two pupils removed their veil to attend a Catholic school open day, but their Muslim teacher refused the request

A Muslim teacher was barred from visiting a Catholic college after refusing to remove her full-face veil so staff could identify her.

Now the school may face a claim of religious discrimination after the woman left rather than agreeing to reveal her face.

The teacher, who works at an Islamic school, was attending an open day at the sixth form college along with two teenage pupils, all of them wearing veils which left only their eyes visible.

They were asked to remove them as it was against the college policy - but while the girls complied, their teacher refused.

The incident, which happened in Jack Straw's Blackburn constituency, comes as the issue of the full-face veil is once again at the centre of debate, and could see the school plunged into a court battle.

Last week French president Nicolas Sarkozy provoked controversy when he called for the similar, all-enveloping burkha to be banned, branding it a sign of 'subservience and debasement' rather than of religion.

Mr Straw himself said in 2006 that veils could make community relations harder as they were a 'visible statement of separation and difference'.

The incident happened at an open day for prospective students hosted by St Mary's College in Blackburn, Lancashire.

Two girls thought to be aged 15 agreed with requests to remove their niqab face veils, but their teacher refused even after she was told it was against the college's policy, and left the premises.

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The teacher, who works at the Islamiya Girls High School in nearby Great Harwood, was yesterday said to be 'shocked and upset' at being turned away.

Earlier this year another Catholic college in Blackburn, Our Lady and St John, turned away a Muslim mother from her child's parents evening because she was wearing a full-face veil.

In both cases, the colleges bar anyone from wearing any items which obscure the face, including crash helmets, on the grounds that they need to be able to identify anyone who visits their premises.

Muslim staff and pupils are also prevented from wearing veils as this would hamper their ability to communicate.

Yesterday, however, local Muslims criticised the extension of the ban to visitors, while governors of the private Islamic school attended by the girls are considering lodging a formal complaint that the college's policy is discriminatory.

Abdul Hamid Qureshi, chairman of Lancashire Council of Mosques, said: 'We understand when they say it isn't conducive to learning for pupils and teachers to wear the niqab, but she was only visiting as part of an open day, she wasn't teaching a class.

'Women who wear the niqab think that to remove it in front of adult men is being disobedient to God's will, so they won't.

'To ask mothers and other visitors to the school to take off their veils means they will stay away, and that will harm efforts to encourage Muslim families to engage with their children's education.'

Meanwhile a source at the Islamiya school, which has 250 pupils, said: 'We have a very good relationship with St Mary's and the parents respect the education it provides.

'But this is the first we've heard of this policy - surely the onus was on them to inform us about it?'

Muslim teenagers make up a growing proportion of students at St Mary's, with 28 per cent from ethnic minorities, and Ofsted has praised its 'outstanding' record in promoting dialogue between people of different backgrounds.

Last night college principal Kevin McMahon defended the decision, saying: 'Such dialogue can only take place if all those in the college are prepared to participate in full communication. 

'For this reason, and the importance of being able to identify those on the site throughout their time with us, St Mary’s has a long-standing policy that people entering the site do not have their faces covered.'

He was backed by David Green, director of the thinktank Civitas, who said: 'The college is absolutely right - most Muslims would say it isn't a religious obligation to cover the face, so if you do so in this country, you're making a political stance.

'It's a courageous decision to make a stand because there's a risk they'll face a legal challenge.

'But I think 99 per cent of people would agree with them, and the Government should come out and say they will always back schools which follow this policy.'

Schools have been allowed to restrict the wearing of veils since two key judgements.
In 2006, classroom assistant Aishah Azmi lost a discrimination claim after she was asked to remove her veil while working at a Dewsbury junior school.

The following year a 12-year-old girl lost a High Court battle to be able to wear the niqab at her Buckinghamshire grammar school.

However the Government opted against an outright ban, saying it was for individual schools and councils to decide.



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