Whether devout Muslim women should remove face veils for reasons of national security and in daily matters involving identity was tackled head-on at a discussion chaired by Bradford’s Council for Mosques and attended by local MP Philip Davies.
And Mr Davies claimed that 90 per cent of his Shipley constituents would vote for a total ban on such garments.
The council’s vice-chairman Zulfi Karim invited Shipley MP Mr Davies to the meeting after he told the House of Commons that customs officials should be legally able to demand the removal of niqabs or other headwear.
“I have asked Mr Davies to join in a sensible debate with members of the community and I’d like to thank him for taking up that offer,” Mr Karim said at the start of the discussion held in the Khidmat Centre, in Spencer Road, Bradford.
Speaking to representatives of local muslim women’s groups, Mr Davies outlined his views on niqabs.
He stressed he had not supported a bill proposing a total ban on such garments and added: “I genuinely don’t want to live in a country where the government tells people what they can and cannot wear.
“I don’t agree with that – however if there was a referendum on face coverings, I’m sure around 90 per cent of my constituents would say it should be banned in public. My own view is that such a ban would in itself be an anti-British thing to do.”
But Mr Davies then said he felt Muslims should recognise that wearing the niqab was a divisive act.
“I think wearing the niqab exacerbates that feeling of segregation, it’s part of a wider problem of people seemingly not wanting to integrate into society,” he said.
“My constituents are not racists, they are nice, decent people but this is how they genuinely feel.”
Mr Davies said just as everyone was equal in the eyes of British law, everyone should reveal their faces when the need arose, such as with passports or even bus passes and urged for that message to be passed through Bradford’s community of different muslim sects.
Mr Karim said that as a Saltaire resident he disputed Mr Davies’ opinion of Shipley people’s attitudes and said: “We are only talking about an estimated 0.2 per cent of muslim women in Britain who wear the niqab.”
Selina Ullah, director of Bradford’s Muslim Women’s Council, said too much attention was being paid to what was an issue of little importance.
“The amount of energy put into this by politicians and the media is totally disproportionate – it’s just ratchetting up fear amongst people,” she said.
Summing up the meeting’s mood Mr Karim said it was accepted and agreed across the Bradford muslim community that niqabs should be removed in the circumstances outlined by Mr Davies and that this did not need to be backed up by legislation.