British judge rules that Muslim defendant must remove her face covering during testimony

September 22, 2013 • 9:10 am

In a previous report on this site in August, I described how a judge in Hackney, a London suburb, was considering banning a Muslim woman, accused of intimidating a witness, from wearing her burqa in court. The item in contention was the face-covering, or niqab, shown below.


The woman wanted to wear her face covering at all times, but the judge denied that for the time being.  There were two issues: how to identify the defendant, and whether the defendant’s face should be shown as a way of judging her credibility.  Although the woman’s lawyer suggested that the defendant could be identified by a policewoman outside the courtroom, and then put her veil back on before testimony, the judge nixed that.  Others, including myself, see the covering of a face during testimony as a way to hide facial expressions or body language that could be influential, and at any rate religion custom should in such cases take a back seat to common law.

Last Monday’s Guardian describes the upshot: the judge made a compromise in the interest of religious sensibilities:

A Muslim woman must remove her full-face veil when she gives evidence but may wear it at other times during her trial, a judge has ruled.

Judge Peter Murphy’s compromise ruling, which involves screening her from public view in the court when she is not veiled, will set a precedent for how criminal courts deal with defendants who wear a traditional niqab.

The 22-year-old woman from London, referred to in the judgment only as D, says it is against her religious beliefs to show her face in public. She pleaded not guilty to a charge of witness intimidation last week while wearing a veil.

Directions for the trial at Blackfriars crown court, due to take place in November, will also prohibit courtroom artists from making any sketch or drawing of the defendant without her niqab. Only the judge, jury and legal counsel will be able to see D’s face when she gives evidence.

. . . He continued: “Whether or not there is an obligation to wear the niqab is not a subject of universal agreement within Islam; rather, it is a choice made by individual women on a personal basis.” That choice, nonetheless, should be “respected as a manifestation of religion or belief”.

That last bit seems confused to me. If there’s disagreement about whether wearing it is obligatory (which presumes that it’s sometimes not a choice), then it can’t always be a choice.  And one must consider what manifestations of religion are publicly acceptable.  Certainly polygamy and child marriage, which is a manifestation of some Mormon sects’ beliefs, is nothing to be respected at all. I am a bit conflicted about burqas and niqabs—after all, being brainwashed while young isn’t exactly a “choice”—I tend to be against banning burqas in public except in places like banks, public buildings, and courts where facial identification is important. Nor should they be worn in airports, and I quail at the thought of being taught in a classroom by a woman whose face is covered.

But I still remember a group of young Muslim women at Middle East Technical University in Turkey telling me why they favored the Turkish headscarf ban.  If it were rescinded, they said, other Muslim women would shame them, calling them “bad Muslims” for failing to conform to the dress code. (There’s nothing in the Qur’an, by the way, that mandates covering a woman’s body.)  One shouldn’t rule out the effect of social pressure when arguing that Muslim dress is “a woman’s choice.”

The Muslim Council’s “sensible” solution, of course, is to permit women to wear the niqab constantly.

. . . The Muslim Council of Britain called for a “sensible, non-hysterical conversation” over the issue of the niqab following the ruling but added that women should be allowed to wear the veil if they want to.

“She is entitled to wear it in private and in public,” Meek said last week. “That right to wear the niqab also extends to the courtroom. There is no legislation in the UK in respect of the wearing of the niqab. There is no law in this country banning it.

“The jury will be able to determine her demeanour while wearing the veil. Demeanour is not just how their mouth moves, it is how their head moves, their eyes move, their hands move. That will be fully visible to the jury and no bar to her giving evidence.”

“Not just how their mouth moves”!  That means that, of course, there are revealing facial expressions that can be hidden by the niqab.  This is disingenuous.

Sadly, we’ll never know how many Muslim women wear burqas and niqabs from free choice: that is, if they suffered no penalty at all for wearing other forms of dress. Social pressure and indoctrination in the Muslim community is often so strong that the concept of “choice” loses all meaning. Given that, I see no obvious way to free those women in repressive Muslim countries who don’t want to be enveloped in a sack.

h/t: Natalie

49 thoughts on “British judge rules that Muslim defendant must remove her face covering during testimony

    1. The judge sidestepped the issue by only obliging her to remove her veil while actually giving evidence (testifying). She is at liberty to refuse and not remove the veil. Further rulings to take place… cheers Jerry, London.

  1. Interesting as Muslim women are not allow to wear the face veil in mosques or at the holy site in mecca during pilgrimage. Also it is not accepted as a requirement. So why do they do it? Intimidation to others¿??

  2. You will be amazed at how many women embrace this dresswear. For many it us used to intimidate and harass others. So don’t be fooled into believing she is a victim on that account. She may have been a victim of indoctrination but now she my stand strong with the manmade hate ideology aka Abrahamic faith.

  3. What can one say except she appears to be a woman caught up in just another patriarchal boys club, unless she’s in their club voluntarily – a few western nitwits certainly are (no point in being ‘pc’ about it).

    Aside from that, there’s too many liberties taken in the name of ‘religion’ in attempts to force their way above the law. I have bad news for them – that’s what politicians and royalty are for.

    It’s about time someone had the intestinal fortitude to start pruning them back.

    1. Even Ayaan Hirsi Ali admits that she first put on the hijab voluntarily, under no particular duress or coercion. It was more like a misguided sense of superiority.

      So the case can be made that it is sometimes voluntary.

  4. I just wonder how the same judge would treat a defendant who said she was a Pastfarian and had to wear a colander over her face because of her beliefs. Equal treatment under the law? I doubt it.
    I find these endless concessions paid to the religious so tediously irrating.

    1. Absolutely ! There are dress codes for workplaces, court of laws and so on. Nobody would write an editorial to defend the “right” to wear a baseball cap in court. In my opinion when it comes to religion concessions = accommodations.

  5. I just wonder how the judge would treat a defendant who said she was a Pastfarian and had to wear a colander over her face because of her beliefs. Equal treatment under the law? I doubt it.
    I find these endless concessions paid to the religious so tediously irrating.

  6. To see how ridiculous and unreasonable this now admitted criminal’s demands are one need only remove religion from it. How would a judge treat any other defendant’s demand to wear a full face mask in criminal court? It’s pretty clear that such a demand would receive zero consideration, which is exactly what this woman should have received if all people are to be considered equal under the law.

    It is also ridiculous that courtroom artists are not allowed to draw this woman’s face. That privileges her above all other defendants. I’m sure lots of defendants would like to be exempted from media coverage, but, again, she’s being given privileges above and beyond what other defendants get.

    1. Courtroom artists can’t *draw her face?* Why stop there? Why should she have to be subjected to… anything? Being charged? Going to jail? Having to answer intrusive questions? Pretty sure her god Does Not Approve of any of it.

      Ridiculous, unreasonable… and insane.

      1. Yes, pretty crazy, though, as someone pointed out in the comments at the Guardian, wearing a full face mask in court is probably not the best way to get the jury to trust your testimony…

        …it is also probably easier for a jury to pass judgement on a sack of cloth with eye slits than a person.

        So unless the woman thinks she is the most un-empathatec person in the world the demand to wear a full face veil in court as a defendant is probably a massive, religiously indoctrinated own-goal.

    2. It could be taken even one step further…. Once locked up, if you grow tired of the jailhouse fare of hot dogs, grill cheese and bologna sandwich’s, “convert” to Judaism or Islam and your dietary woes will vanish.
      No judicial system, public school or government should recognize any form of religion, let alone grant them special rights and treatment based on the myths they claim to follow.

  7. I’d certainly oppose privileged treatment based on religion. But there’s a background assumption here that a jury can extract meaningful information from superficial facial expressions. Here’s an FBI piece talking about some research on the issue:

    This research suggests that it is possible to discern liars from behavioral cues, but that it requires expert training and analysis of a range of factors, well beyond the abilities of an untrained juror.

    I’d like to see some scientific scrutiny of the whole legal process. The limited evidence suggests that untrained jurors can’t get any reliable information from facial expressions – but most certainly think they can. We might get fairer results if all witnesses submitted evidence in writing, or from behind a screen.

    And how about training juries before major criminal trials to educate them about logical fallacies, basic statistical methods, etc.?

    1. ” We might get fairer results if all witnesses submitted evidence in writing, or from behind a screen.”/

      Indeed we might, the key word being “all”. 🙂 All witness and defendants need to be treated equally, without special privileges when the magic word “religion” is invoked.

      The courts, though, are rooted more in the tradition of jurisprudence than in the scientific method, so such changes would take very clear science on the issue and major legislative action. It takes a lot to overcome people’s often false intuition that they can spot a lie.

      1. As a further aside, suppose that you allowed all defendants the choice to mask their face throughout a trial. I wonder how the defendant’s choice would affect the typical juror’s perception? I’d guess that the typical juror would be less inclined to trust the testimony of a masked defendant?

        Again, not that I’m remotely in favor of privileged treatment based on religion, but I doubt that this woman is gaining any advantage here. Except maybe grounds for appeal because the jury might have been biased against someone who didn’t show her face….

    2. Ralph, you point out the the major cause of injustice in criminal prosecutions: guilt or innocence being assessed by juries from a defendant’s demeanour. Two high-profile British politicians, Lord Archer and Jonathan Aitken even managed to fool experienced judges.

  8. What’s wrong with polygamy? ;p
    Seriously though, I don’t understand how or where the line is drawn when it comes to religious practices and the law. If it is unlawful to cover your face in the court room, why should religion get a pass? Can I legally stone to death my neighbor for mowing his lawn on Sunday afternoon when I’m trying to relax, so long as I claim to follow the bible? Do only old religions get a pass, or can I start a new one up that demands wearing any form of clothing in public is a grave sin?

  9. The wording of the Muslim Council statement is rather revealing:

    Demeanour is not just how their mouth moves, it is how their head moves, their eyes move, their hands move.

    Not now “one’s” mouth moves, or how “a person’s” eyes move — they are not making claims about people at large, but specifically about women. It is unimaginable that they would make the same claims for men.

  10. I’ m almost inclined to commit a traffic offence to get me into a magistrates court where I will with all seriousness insist on only giving evidence butt naked as it my religious belief that an accused person should be totally exposed to full public view. This should guarantee me never being prosecuted for anything…

    1. Before you do I would look up the story of the naked rambler. Some serious prison time in that case (although primarily Scottish rather than English courts).

    1. Not quite accurate. In Turkey the wearing of the burka or even the hijab in a government building such as a school is forbidden; it is not forbidden elsewhere (or a small number of people were violating the law when I visited Turkey some years ago).

  11. The head covering in their various forms (niqab, hijab, burka, etc.) are not part of Islam but come from Arab customs, so I fail to see how this should be a religious matter. It is also true that women oppress other women with social pressure (the age old feminine way to bully) as I have a friend (ex Muslim) who said it is used to show how much holier than thou the hijab (etc.) wearing person is. My friend gets angry when she sees any head covering, to the point that it’s embarrassing.

    1. “The head covering in their various forms (niqab, hijab, burka, etc.) are not part of Islam but come from Arab customs, so I fail to see how this should be a religious matter.”

      I’ve been tempted to put forth such arguments but I don’t really see them has having any benefit. A religion is what it’s adherents say it is, regardless of whether their original text has the doctrine. It is just a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

      I think the fundamental issue is that it doesn’t matter whether the oppressive garments are cultural or “religious”, there is no real difference, nor should any difference be afforded/privledged by law.

    2. The main point of wearing a burka if you don’t have to, is to announce to world that you are holier than everyone else, and therefore by implication, that others not so clad are inferior. It makes me angry to see women throwing the progress of centuries in the face of our forebears, who struggled and occasionally died for the rights we now enjoy. I remind myself that they are victims of a brutal and evil ideology much more than anything else, but I fear that their casual contempt for women’s rights puts us all at risk. Going backwards is easier than many people realise, and oppression is quickly restored under the right conditions.

      1. You have a point about women’s rights and i can only hope that the progress I see in the younger generations doesn’t backslide! We all need to keep our eyes on this!

  12. Couple of things:
    One, that a charge of “intimidating a witness” is serious stuff, here as well as in the UK,
    And two, we do not know whether this woman is a recent immigrant to England, or of a 2nd or even 3rd generation of immigrants. Anyway you cut it, however, she should have no reasonable expectation to claim a religious right that is antithetical to British Common law, as laid down since 1189.

  13. I also have a compromise to propose: anyone who states that women have a right to wear a niqab in the courtroom should be jailed for the rest of their life. It sounds like a good compromise to me. People need to be reminded that it is the civil law which is supreme, not any goddamned religion and its rules.

  14. Islamic nursery rhyme :
    Sticks and stones may break my bones but the burqa hides my bruises.

    really bronze age myths running the conduct in a 21st century courtroom ?!?!
    so sad !!

  15. “Certainly polygamy and child marriage, which is a manifestation of some Mormon sects’ beliefs, is nothing to be respected at all.”

    What’s wrong with polygamy? Surely you agree that anything consenting, sane adults do which does not infringe on others is OK?

    Sure, forced polygamy is bad, but so is forced marriage and forced labour, but I don’t see you railing against marriage or labour per se.

    1. To be fair, almost all real-world examples of polygamy are exploitative and often involve underage girls and lack of consent, and so do not actually involve “consenting, sane adults”.

      Furthermore, the real world overwhelmingly involves polygyny (one man marrying multiple women/girls), and so re-inforce gender power imbalance.

      If labour per se were just as exploitative in the real world, I’d be against it as well.

      It’s all well and good to be in favour of something from a principled, philosophical perspective, but we also have to be aware of how it gets realized in the actual world. In the actual world, almost all polygamy involves massive power imbalance and sexual exploitation of women.

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