School Aide Swept Up In Britain's Veil Debate

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By Thomas Wagner
Associated Press
Monday, October 16, 2006

LONDON -- A government minister has joined an increasingly bitter debate about the rights of Muslim women to veil their faces, saying a teaching assistant should be fired for insisting on wearing one in school.

Phil Woolas, Britain's race and faith minister, was quoted by the Sunday Mirror newspaper as demanding that Aishah Azmi, a Muslim, be fired for refusing to remove her veil at work.

"She should be sacked. She has put herself in a position where she can't do her job," Woolas said.

Azmi has refused to remove her black veil, which leaves only her eyes visible, in front of male colleagues. She was suspended but has taken her case to a court that handles cases on employment law.

Azmi, who is 24 and has two children, has insisted that she is willing to remove her veil in class, as long as no adult males are present.

"She is denying the right of children to a full education by insisting that she wears the veil," Woolas said. "If she is saying that she won't work with men, she is taking away the right of men to work in school."

The debate on the veils began this month when Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary who now serves as leader of the House of Commons, said Muslim women visiting his office should remove them.

The opposition Conservatives also weighed in, with one of the party's top officials accusing Muslim leaders of encouraging a "voluntary apartheid" that could help spawn homegrown terrorism.

David Davis, a top Conservative Party official, supported Straw. "What Jack touched on was the fundamental issue of whether in Britain we are developing a divided society," Davis told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. "Whether we are inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid."

Prime Minister Tony Blair praised Straw for raising the issue "in a measured and considered way," and he urged Britons to engage the topic without "becoming hysterical."

Salman Rushdie, whose book "The Satanic Verses" once led to death threats against him by Islamic clerics, said last week that Straw "was expressing an important opinion, which is that veils suck, which they do. I think the veil is a way of taking power away from women."

Nazir Ahmed, the House of Lords' first Muslim legislator, joined the fray by criticizing British politicians and the media for "demonizing" the country's Muslims.

On BBC radio, Ahmed, a moderate lawmaker of the governing Labor Party, said: "The problem is that the politicians and some people in the media have used this for demonization of entire communities."


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