What are the rules on burkas and niqabs in the UK?

10 August 2018

Boris Johnson’s comments on burkas in his Telegraph column have reignited a debate on religious face veils.   

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What’s the difference between the burka and niqab?

There are several types of veils that Muslim women may choose to wear. There’s the hijab, a headscarf which covers the hair, the niqab, which also covers the face with the eyes uncovered, and the burka, which covers the entire face, with mesh over the eyes to see out of.

It’s not clear how many women wear the face veil in the UK

We don’t know of any research into how many women in the UK wear the burka or niqab, although the number is likely to be very small.

Rough estimates in France from 2009 put the number of fully veiled women between the low hundreds and the low thousands.

These figures are a fraction of the total estimated Muslim population. There were around 3.2 million people in England and Wales who said they were Muslim in 2017, while French media reported that the government said in 2010 there were an estimated 5 to 6 million Muslims in France.

An Ipsos Mori poll conducted in 2016 found that people in Great Britain tend to overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslim. The average guess was 15%, while the ONS said that year the real figure was closer to 6% (although that was just for England and Wales).

Is the burka going to be banned here?

Several countries in Europe have effectively banned the burka in different circumstances.

But in response to a 2016 petition here calling for a ban on “the wearing of a Burka, any full or partial front face coverings in public” (which attracted 19,765 signatures) the government responded that it had “no intention of making it a criminal offence to wear face coverings”.

“Face coverings can be worn in public places for a variety of legitimate reasons, from religious observance to keeping warm in inclement weather,” the government said.

Indeed, Boris Johnson wrote in his article that he was “against a total ban”.

A YouGov poll in April 2017 showed that just under half of their 1,500-strong sample of people in Great Britain said the statement which came closest to their view was that “a law against wearing a full body and face veil should be introduced”.  Just over 40% said “people should be allowed to decide for themselves what to wear (including burqas and niqabs)”.

The survey question was preceded by the statement: “burqas and niqabs are outfits which some women use to cover their body and face. Usually, they are worn by Muslim women when they are out in public.”

What rules are in place for face coverings?

The government said in response to the petition that police have the power to remove veils or religious face coverings if they believe the garments are being used as a disguise. The government said this comes under section 60AA of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

As part of guidance on the police’s stop and search powers, for items worn over heads and faces for religious reasons, officers “should permit the item to be removed out of public view.” It also says that where practical, it should be removed only in the sight of someone of the same sex.

Women who wear hijabs  (headscarves that do not cover the face) can wear them in UK passport photos, but otherwise cannot have anything covering their faces.

In an answer to a written question back in 2014, during the coalition government, the then-minister of state for the Home Office Mike Penning MP said “passengers wearing a veil or face covering on arrival in the United Kingdom will be asked to remove their veil so that their appearance can be compared with the photograph on their passport.”

As part of an FOI response in 2014, the Home Office quoted part of border force guidance similar to rules for police, that said: “where there may be religious sensitivities about ordering the removal of such an item, the officer should permit the item to be removed out of public view”.

In another border force guidance document on examining passengers who are veiled for religious or cultural reasons, staff are advised that passengers can wait for a female officer if none are available.

But it also states that: “the fact that the arrival of a female officer may cause the passenger some delay is not grounds to waive the visual check to establish that the passenger is the rightful holder of the document.”

The NHS said recently that its employers’ dress codes may “directly or indirectly restrict the wearing of burkhas and veils”.

In 2014, the Telegraph reported  that 17 NHS hospitals had “instituted a ban on front line staff wearing the niqab”. We have found at least two trusts with published dress codes that either ban the niqab completely or say that facial veils can’t be worn during clinical shifts or when speaking to patients, visitor or staff.

Can employers ban veils?

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a non-departmental government body and offers guidelines on workplace dress codes and religious symbols.

That guidance says that employers must ensure their dress codes do not directly or indirectly discriminate against their employees. The commission describes direct discrimination as when someone is “treated worse than someone else in a similar situation because of religion or belief”. It says this type of discrimination can rarely be justified.

Indirect discrimination is when a rule or policy is applied to everyone but particularly affects a group of people because of their religion or belief. This type of discrimination can sometimes be justified, the commission says, if their policy is “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. This legitimate aim can be something like maintaining a company image or protecting health and safety.

On headscarves, the commission says that a ban “which only applies to some religious symbols or dress but not others would be unlawful direct discrimination”. This comes after European Court of Human Rights ruling in two UK cases where employees wanted to wear visible crosses at work. The court ruled in favour of one, an airline check-in officer who they said had the right to express manifest her belief in this way. They ruled against the other, a nurse, on health and safety grounds.

The commission says “health and safety reasons can in some cases justify asking an employee to remove a particular symbol or type of dress” although employees need to be clear on why a religious symbol poses a risk and ensure they’re not discriminating.

Two subsequent cases that reached European courts were regarding women (neither in the UK) who wore hijabs and were both sacked. The courts ruled against one, because her employers’ dress code banned outward expressions of personal belief. They ruled in favour of the other, who was sacked because clients complained about her wearing hijab.

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