London: Muslim students have been banned from wearing full-face veils at one of Britain’s largest higher education colleges.
Teachers and parents wearing the niqab — which covers all but the eyes — were also told they must show their faces or be barred from the campus buildings.
Birmingham Metropolitan College says the headwear poses a security risk and insists all students should be able to learn in a ‘safe and welcoming’ environment.
But many of the 44,000 students at the college’s 11 campuses claim the policy discriminates against their religion and constitutes a ‘breach of freedom’.
Muslim students are now campaigning to change the rules, which they were confronted with as they arrived for the first day of term last week.
Imaani Ali, 17, who studies applied sciences, said: “We were only told we wouldn’t be allowed inside the college after we had enrolled.
“It’s a breach of my freedom and I feel discriminated against. This is my religion, it is what I believe in.”
Jasmine Mohammad, 18, who has now transferred to another college partly because of the ruling, said: “I think it’s wrong that the college should force someone to choose between their religion and their education.”
Another 17-year-old girl, who asked not to be named, said: “I find it absolutely shocking that this has been brought in at a college in Birmingham city centre when the city is so multicultural and so many of the students are Muslim.” Business and law student Ellie Crossingham, 18, said: “I can see both sides. It is their religion and I think you have to respect people’s views, but I don’t think it’s fair that you can’t see their faces, for safety reasons. You’re not allowed to wear helmets or hats.”
The row comes amid a wider debate over a ban on religious clothing that almost totally covers the body and face.
Just days ago, MPs debated a Private Member’s Bill by Tory MP Philip Hollobone — who refuses to see constituents who will not lift their veils - that such clothing ‘goes against the basic part of the British way of life’.
On Tuesday, Shabana Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Ladywood, said she wanted a meeting with officials at the ‘popular and well-regarded’ college.
“I would like to know how many students are affected and a full explanation as to why the compromise suggested by students at the college - that the veil is removed for security staff to check and verify identity before being put back on — was not accepted,” she said.
Mohammad Ismail, Imam of Birmingham Central Mosque, said everybody had the right to observe ‘cultural and religious requirements’ within the law.
And a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain said it was ‘religious discrimination masquerading as a security measure’.
“For Birmingham Metropolitan College to ban the niqab is quite a shocking and draconian step to take,” he said.
However, Muslim Association of Britain president Omer Al Hamdoon said students should obey the college’s rules.
“Some feel it is part of their religion - but they need to be practical,” he added.
Each year, the college welcomes 8,500 students aged between 16 and 19, as well as 35,000 adult learners and more than 250 international students.
Some 43 per cent of the students come from ethnic groups other than white.
But the college said the no-veil policy does not discriminate against Muslims and applies to anyone trying to cover their faces with clothing such as hoodies, caps and hats.
It added that no formal complaints had been made about the rule, which also requires visitors to remove veils or wait in reception if they refuse.
Principal and chief executive Dame Christine Braddock defended the controversial measure on Tuesday.
“We are committed to ensuring that students are provided with a safe and welcoming learning environment whilst studying with us,” she said.
“This needs individuals to be easily identifiable at all times when they are on college premises and this includes the removal of hoodies, hats, caps and veils so that faces are visible. “All prospective and progressing students, as well as staff, have been advised of the policy, which will mean everyone allowed on the premises can understand and know each other in a safe environment.”