Unless you live in a cave, you’ll know recent events have rekindled the debate about the wearing of the niqaab, or face veil. As a law student, I found the issue of wearing such attire in court particularly resonant.
On Monday, a judge ruled on a case in which a young Muslim woman faces charges of intimidating a witness involved in a separate case. Judge Peter Murphy declared that the defendant may wear her niqaab throughout the entirety of her trial, except when being questioned, so that the jury, advocates and judge may make inferences based upon her expressions.
Of course, a screen will be necessary to shield her face from the public, lest the male members of the gallery find themselves unable to control their misogynistic impulses. Additionally, the press will be prohibited from publishing a courtroom sketch with the defendant’s face included, even if she’s convicted. The rest of us, on the other hand, will still have to undergo the shame of having our faces seen by the world when we’ve committed a crime – an important part of the retributive process.
Atheist Pat Condell has ridiculed the veil as a ‘clownish symbol of male stupidity and inadequacy.’ When Islam is accused of propagating this ‘nonsense’, its apologists are quick to declare that it is not sanctioned by the Qur’an and is therefore not Islamic. However, when women wish to wear it in places where it causes difficulty, such as airports or courtrooms, all of a sudden it becomes a fundamental part of Islamic doctrine.
I could enter into a discussion as to whether the veil is ‘Islamic’, however, that would be to assume that it mattered. It is true that the European Convention on Human Rights allows freedom of religious practice. However, religious expression deserves no more privilege than any other forms, such as artistic or political expression. Judge Murphy himself has acknowledged this in his judgment: “If the defendant is entitled to keep her face covered, it becomes impossible for the Court to refuse the same privilege to others, whether or not they hold the same or another religious belief or none at all.”
‘Faith’ by definition means belief without evidence, which makes it something you choose to believe in, just like I might choose to believe it necessary to wear a balaclava if I find myself in the dock. According to the judge, both demands seem to hold equal weight. Yet somehow I don’t imagine the courts would afford me the same luxury.
The sharp-witted reader may be thinking ‘yes, but the Muslim sincerely believes she must cover her face, whereas you do not.’ If referring you to the previous paragraph about choosing to subscribe to a belief system does not blunt your fangs, perhaps another quote from the judge, this time rather equivocal, will: “I accept for the purposes of this judgement that D [the defendant] sincerely takes the view that, as a Muslim woman, she either is not permitted, or chooses not to uncover her face in the presence of men…”
Here it seems the judge is saying that if a defendant merely ‘chooses’ not to uncover her face, that is satisfactory for it to be covered during her trial.’
I take no pride in citing this publication, but just at the start of the month it was reported in the Hull Daily Mail that a judge sent a defendant to the cells in court for arriving wearing tracksuit bottoms and a fleece. Judge Jeremy Richardson QC deemed his attire ‘unacceptable’, although it seems rather less obstructive than the niqaab to achievement of universal administration of fair justice.
Judge Murphy has at least made one positive conclusion, through ordering the veil to be removed during questioning. This decision was based on the notion that ‘it is unfair to ask a juror to pass judgement on a person whom she cannot see.’ In his judgement he stated that the observation of the following is essential for jurors: the witness’s demeanour, reactions to being questioned, and reactions as other evidence given.
The third point is problematic in that it contradicts the order, since the judge and jury may be inclined to examine the defendant’s expressions at any point in the trial, not just when she is on the stand. Judge Murphy’s decision renders this impossible.
The judgment takes a step in the right direction, however, it formalises different standards of treatment for different defendants, and in doing so, privileges religious belief over other forms of belief.
This violates a fundamental part of the English Legal System – equality before the law – for a dubiously-fundamental part of a minority religion. Ironically, it is our hatred of what the niqaab represents which causes hesitancy in arguing against it. However, in the courtroom the issue is so clear-cut that even the most cowardly of liberals out there can safely take a stand.