British Panel Reprimands School in Veil Dispute

Aisha Azmi lost her job as a teaching aide after refusing to remove her veil. A tribunal rejected her claims of discrimination and harassment.
Aisha Azmi lost her job as a teaching aide after refusing to remove her veil. A tribunal rejected her claims of discrimination and harassment. (By John Giles -- Associated Press)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 20, 2006

LONDON, Oct. 19 -- A Muslim teaching assistant was awarded about $2,000 Thursday for being victimized by officials who told her to remove her full-face veil while teaching, in a case highlighting a fierce debate about integration and religious tolerance toward Britain's nearly 2 million Muslim residents.

"Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens," said Aishah Azmi, 24, whose more serious claims, of religious discrimination and harassment, were rejected by the government's Employment Tribunal.

At a news conference in Leeds, she wore a black niqab , a full veil that leaves only the eyes visible, and said she would "continue to uphold my religious beliefs and urge Muslims to engage in dialogue with the wider community, despite the attacks that are being made upon them."

Azmi's case stirred a national discourse that reached a peak Tuesday when Prime Minister Tony Blair backed the decision by education officials in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, to suspend her. Blair called veils "a mark of separation" that makes non-Muslims "uncomfortable." His comments followed earlier statements against veils by at least three other government ministers.

Jack Straw, a key Blair ally and leader of the House of Commons, sparked the debate this month when he said he planned to ask Muslim women who visited him in his local constituency office to remove their veils, which he said were a barrier to communication.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell then called veils a "symbol of women's subjugation to men." Phil Woolas, minister for community cohesion, said Azmi should be fired for "denying the right of children to a full education." And David Davis, a key Conservative Party leader, said Muslims were risking "voluntary apartheid" by wearing veils and failing to integrate fully into British society.

The British debate reflects increasing tension across Europe between Muslims and majority populations, especially in formerly homogenous nations such as France and the Netherlands that have large and growing Muslim communities. On Tuesday, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi argued against wearing veils, saying: "You can't cover your face; you must be seen. This is common sense, I think. It is important for our society."

Muslim leaders have responded angrily, saying comments by government officials amounted to an unfair attack on a religious minority. Many here have noted that only a small minority of women wear the full niqab -- far more wear simple head scarves -- and that their choice should be respected in a society that values religious freedom and free expression.

"Sadly, the intervention of ministers in my case makes me fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work," Azmi told reporters. "Politicians need to recognize that what they say can have a very dangerous impact on the lives of the minorities they treat as outcasts. Integration requires people like me to be in the workplace so that people can see that we are not to be feared or mistrusted."

Headfield Church of England Junior School, where Azmi taught 11-year-olds learning English as a second language, suspended her in November 2005 after she refused to remove her veil at work. School officials said students found it hard to understand her during lessons and that face-to-face communication was essential for her job. Officials said the decision to suspend her was made only after school officials spent time assessing the impact of wearing the veil on teaching and learning.

"The school and local authority had to balance the rights of the children to receive the best quality education possible and Mrs. Azmi's desire to express her cultural beliefs by wearing a veil in class," said a spokesman for the Kirklees Council, which approved the suspension. The council was ordered in Thursday's ruling to pay damages to Azmi in connection with her claim that officials had created an "intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for her" at work.

Azmi said she was willing to remove her veil in front of children or other female teachers, but not in front of men.

At a news conference, she insisted that "the veil doesn't cause a barrier" between teacher and student. "I can and do teach perfectly well with my veil on," Azmi said. "Just give it a chance -- that's what I call integration."

She said she was considering appealing the tribunal's decision to dismiss her claims of religious discrimination and harassment.

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