One Muslim woman's refusal to take off her veil while teaching in a primary school has caused outrage and a debate on the state of multi-cultural Britain. Sheena Hastings reports on the case of Aishah Azmi.
AISHAH Azmi applied for a job as a bilingual teaching assistant at Headfield C of E Junior School in Dewsbury. She reportedly understood that she was to be interviewed only by a woman member of the school's management.
She went into the interview without the veil (or niqab) she usually wore as an outward sign of her devout observance of the Muslim faith, wearing it in the presence of adult males. After a few minutes, the male head teacher entered the room, and Mrs Azmi apparently pulled the veil out of her bag and put it on.
She was given the job, and worked at the school from September 2005 until she was suspended on full pay by Kirklees Council in February of this year, on the grounds of her refusal to take off the veil. The council said that children needed to be able to see her face to understand what she was saying.
An employment tribunal is due to announce a decision this week on the claim Mrs Azmi brought against the council for alleged religious discrimination, in that the school insisted she take the veil off when teaching.
We don't know all the details of the case, but that hasn't stopped the political fur from flying. Local Government and Community Cohension Minister Phil Woolas has called for Mrs Azmi to be sacked for "denying children the right to a full education".
He added: "You can't have a teacher who wears a veil simply because there are men in the room."
The Muslim Council of Britain called Mr Woolas's comments "an outrageous intervention by Government...", and Shadow Home Secretary David Davis weighed in by accusing Muslim leaders of risking the creation of "a voluntary apartheid" and of expecting special protection from criticism.
All of this follows the recent revelation of Commons leader Jack Straw's practice of asking niqab-wearing constituents to remove the veil during private discussions with him in his Blackburn constituency, because he said the veil represented a barrier to communication.
Suddenly, one woman's insistence on wearing the niqab seems to have become, for some, the symbol of a failed vision of integration, the totem of all that is wrong with multicultural Britain.
Aishah Azmi's stand, right or wrong, appears to have whipped up a storm of political point-scoring (for example Phil Woolas's unnecessary comment: "I think the voters will agree with me"), rather than a cool debate. It has also provoked claims of Islamophobia from some in the Muslim community.
"It's hard to find a correct answer in a case like this," says Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. "Most of us would, I'm sure, think wearing a veil is down to individual choice. But in this instance, where she is supposed to be teaching language, it's important for children to see her face and hear her voice clearly. Learning language is about watching the teacher's mouth, as well as listening."
Raminder Singh, who is a former joint deputy chairman of the Campaign for Racial Equality and has written extensively on multicultural issues, including education, agrees that what's important in this case is the education of the children, not the dogged pursual of Mrs Azmi's principles in a professional context.
"I have a lot of sympathy with Jack Straw, that a veil can be unhelpful to communication. When I hear such heated arguments and words like 'Islamophobia' I feel the debate is going in the wrong direction. What's important is the children's education. When teaching, particularly language, face-to-face contact is essential.
"There's no problem with a woman wearing the veil in many other situations, where it does not present a problem to communication or inhibit interaction.
"This story has been blown out of all proportion and repeated over and over again in the media, along with other negative Muslim stories. You can see how the community might feel sensitive," says Dr Singh.
The media discussion of Mrs Azmi's case has already gone beyond the few particulars we know of that story, and could well be skewed by certain negative perceptions of what the veil represents. Awareness of the niqab is greater than ever before in this country, probably because not only is there more discussion of it, but there are also more veil-wearing women than ever becoming visible, for instance by entering universities and workplaces.
Robina Ahmad, a 38-year-old diversity trainer, has worn a niqab on a few formal occasions, but generally does not. "The niqab is a more orthodox covering than the hijab, the scarf around the head.
"Women choose to wear it – they are not told to so – and they do it in order to feel closer to the Prophet by wearing the same covering as his wives wore. The niqab is not a sign of repression or a desire to separate yourself from society. It is part of freedom of expression. The rest of the facial expression may be missing, but you can read what's going on in the eyes.
"I think that for someone who's generally such a responsible politician, Jack Straw made a big blunder. I might not agree with how other people dress sometimes, but I wouldn't ask anyone not to do it.
"It's a personal preference, like wearing a Mohican haircut or piercing your lip. We might not like it, but we'd be wrong to assume things about a person just because they do it."
"In the case of this teaching assistant, she should have discussed her wish to wear the veil at the very beginning. The children's education is the most important matter, of course, but some sort of accommodation could surely have been reached with the school, rather than letting things go as far as suspension."
Kirklees Council has the support of Dewsbury's Labour MP Shahid Malik. His worry is that the wider population will see Mrs Azmi as representative of all of the country's one million Muslim women.
"She is the only Muslim I know who insists on wearing it in a situation like this. Her stance is not common sense. She's putting her own interests ahead of the needs and rights of her pupils.
"In the context of an Ofsted report on the school, there was criticism of language teaching. Mrs Azmi was observed internally, teaching with the veil and without. It's not a perfect science, but the veil was judged to cause problems... I think the school has been reasonable."
Mr Malik sees the arguments about Aishah Azmi as symptomatic of something deeper. "People don't mix well, and it's not just about Muslims. There's anxiety, fear, insecurity. The solution is for communities to get to know each other.
"If we found out more about each other, we'd be more relaxed about difference."