Muslim Veil NHS Debate Goes Wider than Religious Freedom

20/09/2013 14:14 BST | Updated 20/11/2013 10:12 GMT

In recent days the niqab - a facial veil worn by some Muslim women - has once again become the subject of intense media attention. The latest reincarnation of this issue began several weeks ago when a Muslim defendant refused to remove the headwear standing trial at Blackfriars Crown Court. Judge Peter Murphy eventually ruled that a Muslim woman can stand trial wearing a full-face veil but must remove it to give evidence or face contempt of court proceedings. The debate has since focused on whether NHS staff should be obliged or advised to remove veils whilst working - on Thursday the Department of Health ordered a review on the subject.

The contributions of BBC Question Time panellists to the debate were certainly interesting. Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman framed the issue in terms of women's rights and religious freedom, while New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny went further, claiming that the narrow issue of NHS workers is symptomatic of a wider trend of sexism, racism and 'Islamophobia' typified by the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill currently working its way through Parliament. The draft legislation purports to criminalise the wearing of "a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place".

This parallel, however, is either misguided or disingenuous. The aforementioned Bill has been instigated privately by Conservative MP Philip Hollobone - it does not enjoy the support of the government and as such has no chance of becoming law. It is part of an 'alternative Queen's speech' dreamed up by a trio of Tory right-wingers in response to the perceived soft nature of their party's leadership. In addition to the 'burqa ban', other equally unlikely proposals include the return of capital punishment and renaming the August bank holiday 'Margaret Thatcher Day'. This has nothing to do with prevailing public attitudes and everything to do with the ravings of a couple of disaffected nutters. Indeed, the reality that UK public opinion is on the whole supportive of religious freedom is demonstrated by the fact that even UKIP have now reversed their earlier policy of banning facial veils. The issue of healthcare workers cannot and should not be linked to a wider anti-Islam trend.

Contrary to the views of Laurie Penny, the narrow debate of whether NHS staff should remove their niqabs is therefore self-standing. When pressed, Penny implied that the potential "distress" of patients in this context should be considered subordinate to the right of Muslim women to wear religious headwear per se. In my opinion this argument is both unsustainable, and representative of a school of liberalism that insists religious freedom must trump all else.

At its heart this issue has nothing to do with prejudice - sexism, racism, Islamophobia, call it what you will. The NHS is a public service. Consequently, the rights - in this case the comfort and health of patients - of those to whom the service is owed should come first. It is essential for the comfort of patients that they are able to communicate openly and freely with their doctors. The fact that their potential inability to do so in this context is due to religious dress is neither here nor there - it would be the same if a doctor, for no reason, attempted to communicate whilst covering their face with their hand.

My 87-year-old grandfather is about to have a knee replacement. A facial veil would cause him discomfort not because he is a bigot, but because around the time of operation he would be extremely frail, vulnerable, and dependent on open communication with doctors. The argument that in a public healthcare service the religious freedoms of those administering the service might come before the comfort of the patient is unacceptable. In an employment tribunal case a few years ago, which went on to be considered by the European Court of Human Rights, a health worker was dismissed for refusing to remove a religious cross. For me the principle is the same - in that context necklaces potentially undermine the physical comfort of patients; in this context veils potentially undermine mental comfort, particularly among the frail.

Although numbers of Muslim NHS workers wearing the niqab are low this is nonetheless a worthy debate. Current guidance on the issue is varied - some hospitals say that veils can be worn for religious reasons, while others prohibit the clothing in order to ensure effective communication. The default position in a liberal democracy has to be that everyone is free to dress in a way that expresses their religious identity. However it also has to be accepted that there are limited circumstances in which the interests of society are at odds with, and outweigh, this - religious freedom cannot automatically trump all other rights. These circumstances include court proceedings, teaching in schools, and healthcare. While in my view this area is too sensitive and nuanced to be governed by legislation, I therefore believe that the guidance to all doctors from the General Medical Council should be that facial veils are not to be worn on the job. And this doesn't make me a bigot.