This follows recent controversies involving the wearing of veils in schools. Last week Birmingham Metropolitan College was forced to back down from its attempts to prevent the wearing of veils on its premises and Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne has called for a national debate on whether the State should prevent young women having the veil imposed on them after it emerged that a number of Muslim schools are forcing girls as young as 11 to wear burkas or full-face veils as part of their school uniform. Theresa May and Vince Cable have waded into the debate, both declaring that people should have the freedom of choice how they wish to dress and express their religious beliefs.
Mr Cable compared the situation to the right of a Christian to wear a cross to work, a reference to the European Court of Human Rights ruling in January in the case of Eweida and others v United Kingdom. The ECHR found that the UK had failed to protect Nadia Eweida's freedom to manifest her faith in the workplace, after she was refused the right to wear a cross as a symbol of her faith under her employers' uniform policy. Yet it rejected a similar legal challenge from Shirley Chaplin, a nurse, ruling that the hospital where she worked should be able to refuse permission to wear a cross on “health and safety” grounds.
The rulings by both Judge Murphy and the ECHR represent a practical compromise, whereby generally an individual has a fundamental human right to manifest their religious belief through their attire or otherwise, but where there may be times when this right is overridden. For example on health and safety grounds, or when it is imperative for the individual's face to be revealed, such as when passing through border control or airport security, on when giving evidence in court. However, this does little to appease those that believe that the niqab presents a greater challenge to British customs and values, representing segregation in society and seeing it as a symbol of women's subjugation and oppression.