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There Is No Compulsion in Islam to Wear the Niqab

17/09/2013 10:10 BST | Updated 16/11/2013 10:12 GMT

It often strikes me as noteworthy that the vast majority of female Muslim commentators who argue in favour of the niqab do not wear the full-face veil themselves. Yvonne Ridley, Salma Yaqoob and Myriam Francois-Cerrah are but a few who immediately spring to mind.

All these women fully cover their hair, are practicing Muslims and are generally accepted to be extremely knowledgeable in their faith. In light of this, the unmistakeable message they send out is that there is no compulsion in Islam for women to be fully veiled. In other words, it is perfectly possible for women to adhere to all the tenets of the religion while their faces are visible for all to see.

This is a crucial point in the current debate about religious - and specifically Muslim - freedom in the UK in light of the recent events at Birmingham Metropolitan College and the decision by a judge who ruled that a Muslim woman must remove her face veil if she is giving evidence in court.

Late last week the college lifted its ban on the niqab following an on-line protest involving 9,000 people and the threat of a demonstration on the college grounds.

The protestors claimed that the ban constituted a breach of religious freedom, but given the continued ambiguity within Islam on whether or not the niqab is compulsory, their citing of theological doctrine in this instance is deeply flawed.

Claims that the ban would have been a manifestation of anti-Muslim sentiment is simply not true. If this was the case all headscarves and symbols of the religion would have been prohibited. As it is, many of the college's female Muslim students have worn headscarves and continue to do so without incident - as is their right.

Within Islam, jurisprudence on the face-veil remains inconclusive and indeed some scholars have even gone so far as to discourage it. Others, I suspect -particularly in the UK - privately share this view, although most have yet to voice their opinions openly.

The fact that in many instances Islam actively requires women to discard any facial covering only compounds the uncertainty, in particular the explicit requirement for women to show their faces during the pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah at the Holy Mosque in Mecca.

It stands to reason therefore that many veiled women themselves are unsure of what is expected of them in this matter, as I discovered when I asked one particular woman. When pressed, she admitted that as far as she was aware the rulings were unclear. This will perhaps explain why the face veil has not been accepted universally. In France, only several thousand Muslim women out of the millions who practice the religion cover their faces and I suspect the numbers in the UK are similar.

Many head-scarf wearing practicing Muslim women I know personally are so anti-niqab that they even privately agreed with Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to ban it in public places in France, claiming that the face-veil portrayed their religion in a damaging light.

The female commentators mentioned above say they argue for a woman's right to choose. This is of course a worthy fight, but it is a fight for women's rights, for civil liberties, not for religious freedom.

To legislate against a particular form of attire is unacceptable in a free society; the risk of criminalising a person simply because of what they choose to wear is undoubtedly a violation of basic human rights. People should wear what they want. The distinction that must be made, however, is whether any such ban would be a violation of an individual's general freedom within society or the specific right to practice their religion. In the case of the full-face veil, I would argue it is the former.

Given the ambiguity surrounding the rulings regarding the niqab and the relatively small number of women who choose to wear it, to claim that it is a religious duty exposed Muslims to accusations of inconsistency and a lack of cohesion and unity, and this in turn only serves to strengthen the arguments of Islam's detractors, of which there are plenty.

In this vein, any other arguments against with the niqab - be they on matters of security, the supposed subjugation of women who adorn it and claims that it prevents integration - almost become secondary.

If the accusation is that the banning of the niqab goes against religious freedom, the foremost question must be whether the niqab itself has any kind of theological basis. Until now there has been no compelling evidence to suggest that it has, and this is what appears to have got lost in the debate.