John Halewood-Dodd column: I back judge’s ruling on wearing of Muslim niqab

John Halewood-Dodd
John Halewood-Dodd

The issue of Muslim women wearing the full-face veil, or niqab, is once again extremely topical. Last week Birmingham Metropolitan College overturned a ban on the niqab being worn in their institution.

This week politicians of varying political persuasion have joined the debate, and perhaps of most significance is the decision of HHJ Peter Murphy QC who, whilst sitting on a trial where the defendant wore a niqab decreed that she must remove it whilst giving her evidence at her forthcoming trial.

I have read the judge’s ruling and it appears to me to be a well thought out solution to what he obviously found to be a thorny issue. He has said that she can wear the veil during the rest of her trial but that whilst giving her evidence it must be removed so that the jury can see her.

As a trial advocate I am convinced that evidence is very often assessed, not only by the words that are used, but also by the actions that accompany those words. Body language, and of more relevance to this particular topic, facial expressions, often speak volumes in determining whether or not a witness is telling the truth.

Therefore, I support the judge’s decision as it is based on a common sense approach to the practicalities of giving evidence.

What I find more troubling is the trepidation that people seem to have, myself included, in discussing issues of this type through fear of being labelled a bigot or worse still a racist.

When Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne MP suggested that the wearing of the niqab in general was something which needed to be discussed further the language he used was extremely tentative.

Words such as “careful” and “fearful” were prominent within his short speech, although he wasn’t calling for a ban but merely suggesting that this was a topic for national debate.

For doing so he has been pilloried as a bigot.

Some argue that to deny women the choice to wear what they want, especially due to religious beliefs, is unacceptable in a democratic society. That is an issue that should be debated openly, but it seems somewhat ironic to me that people are genuinely fearful of expressing a view that is contrary to that. Freedom of choice?