A college in England has reversed a ban on Islamic veils after furious Muslim students complained of discrimination, and launched an online petition drive that gathered more than 8,000 signatures in just two days.
Birmingham Metropolitan College backed away from its ban on September 12, just hours before a mass demonstration by hundreds of Muslim students threatened to disrupt the normal functioning of the college.
The controversy began on September 9, the first day of the autumn term, when the college announced that students and employees would be ordered to remove any face coverings so that individuals are "easily identifiable at all times."
The college's ban on face-covering niqabs or the body-covering burqas -- as well as caps, hoodies and other types of head covering -- was billed as a security measure.
Christine Braddock, the college's principal, said the policy had been developed to keep students safe. In an interview with the Birmingham Mail, she said:
We have a very robust equality, diversity and inclusion policy at Birmingham Metropolitan College but we are committed to ensuring that students are provided with a safe and welcoming learning environment whilst studying with us.
To ensure that safeguarding is a priority, we have developed our policy alongside student views to ensure we keep them safe," Braddock added. "This needs individuals to be easily identifiable at all times when they are on college premises and this includes the removal of hoodies, hats, caps and veils so that faces are visible. All prospective and progressing students, as well as staff, have been advised of the policy, which will mean everyone allowed on the premises can understand and know each other in a safe environment.
Muslims were livid. One prospective Muslim student said she was so upset about the policy that she decided to look for another college in the city. The angry 17-year-old girl, who did not want to be named, told the Mail: "It's disgusting. It is a personal choice and I find it absolutely shocking that this has been brought in at a college in Birmingham city center when the city is so multicultural and so many of the students are Muslim. It upsets me that we are being discriminated against."
Another student at the college, Imaani Ali, also 17, told the Mail that her "freedom has been breached" by the rule. "Me and another friend who wears the veil were only told we wouldn't be allowed inside the college after we had enrolled," she said. "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. It's a breach of my freedom and I feel discriminated against. This is my religion, it is what I believe in. I don't really want to go to a place that doesn't accept me but I have no choice now."
Muslim politicians were quick to chime in. Birmingham MP Shabana Mahmood said she was "shocked" and "deeply concerned" at the policy, and demanded an urgent meeting with college leaders about the decision. "For those that chose to wear the full veil, it is an important article of faith," she said. "I would like to know how many students are affected and a full explanation as to why the compromise suggested by students at the College, that the veil is removed for security staff to check and verify identity before being put back on, was not accepted by the College."
"I am deeply concerned that other colleges may follow suit, as a result of which increasing numbers of women will be locked out of education and skills training," Mahmood added. "We must not allow this to happen."
A member of the Birmingham city council, Waseem Zaffar, called the move "baffling" and said: "How they dress in their lessons should be entirely up to the students as there is no uniform policy at the college. I hope the college comes to its senses and does a U-turn."
The Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), an umbrella organization of student groups that represents the interests of more than 100,000 Muslim college students in Britain and Ireland, issued a statement saying: "This senseless decision is massively divisive and will only lead to an environment in which the rights of many will be disproportionately suppressed. The fundamental rights to freedom of religious expression are at stake here and this sets out an extremely dangerous precedent not only for the Muslim community but for members of all faith backgrounds."
The college was ultimately forced into a climb-down after nearly 600 angry students threatened to participate in a campus demonstration on September 14 with the stated aim to "protest against this Islamophobic and illogical decision to ban the face veil...to take a stand against such hysterical and discriminatory decisions."
Fearing that the protest could potentially turn violent, the college issued a statement saying, "We are concerned that recent media attention is detracting from our core mission of providing high quality learning. As a consequence, we will modify our policies to allow individuals to wear specific items of personal clothing to reflect their cultural values."
Muslims reacted with jubilation. Protest organizer Sabiha Mahmood, 27, a former student at the college, said, "We are very happy that the ban has been overturned but there is still the wider issue of why it was ever allowed to happen in the first place. This is a victory for now but we have to make sure it does not happen again in Birmingham or in any other college in the UK. Our primary concern is that this student is part of British society and in this country we allow women to express themselves how they want to. We believe it is a fundamental right for Muslim women to be allowed to wear the face veil and to ban it was a violation of our human rights."
Waseem Zaffar, the city counsellor, said it had been a "sad few days" for Birmingham but was glad "common sense" had prevailed after the U-turn. "I think democracy has won here," he said. "The college has heard 8,000 people signed a petition in 48 hours and they have been brave enough to admit they were wrong. The reputation of the city and the college has been damaged but I hope we can move on now."
A spokeswoman for the Muslim Council of Britain, a Muslim umbrella group that is pressing the British government to implement Islamic Sharia law, described the ban as "shocking," "draconian" and "unBritish," and welcomed its reversal.
"This was a clear case of religious discrimination masquerading as a security measure," she said. "In Britain, we pride ourselves in the freedom of religion. While there may well be many views on whether this aspect of clothing is a religious obligation, we nevertheless respect a woman's right to wear the niqab if she freely wishes to do so."
But others say the college's reversal represents a capitulation for the British way of life.
Tory MP for Kettering Philip Hollobone told the British newspaper The Independent that the college's change of heart was a shameful disgrace and argued for the urgent need for legislation to ban the niqab in all public spaces.
"People are frightened of standing up and speaking out in this discussion because of political correctness and the intolerant reaction from Muslim groups who jump up and down with fury whenever anyone says that it makes sense for people to go around with their faces perfectly visible to everyone else, which is the way human beings were created in the first place," Hollobone said.
Hollobone presented a bill in the British Parliament on September 6 that would make it illegal to wear clothing obscuring the face in public; the bill will be considered on February 28, 2014.
In a live debate entitled, "Should Britain Ban the Veil?" and aired on BBC Radio 5 on September 6, Hollobone said, "Society can't function if people go around with facial coverings. If we all covered our faces the world would be a very different place. Imagine Parliament where everyone had their face covered. It makes it very difficult for the police to identify troublemakers. I am sad that legislation may be necessary to address this problem. It's basic common sense to most people. It would ultimately lead to the breakdown of our society."
Hollobone denied that his proposal amounted to an attack on Islam: "We have to be quite clear -- the burka isn't religious clothing. It's a choice."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.