Veil Case Argument ‘Was Not Appropriate’

A Muslim teaching assistant who was suspended and later sacked for refusing to remove her veil in the classroom yesterday appealed against a tribunal decision which supported her school’s action.

During the hearing it was claimed Aishah Azmi, who was born in Cardiff, should not have been compared with someone wearing a balaclava during her original tribunal.

Mrs Azmi, 24, was suspended on full pay after staff at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, said pupils found it harder to understand her.

A Leeds employment tribunal dismissed three of Mrs Azmi’s claims of discrimination and harassment, but found that she was victimised and awarded her £1,000 for “injury to feelings”. A month later, the local education authority sacked her from her post as a bilingual support worker.

Mrs Azmi, of Thornhill Lees, Dewsbury, said she was willing to remove her veil in front of children – but not when male colleagues were present. Her case sparked a national debate on multiculturalism in Britain, with even the Prime Minister getting involved. Tony Blair said the issue was part of a necessary debate about the way the Muslim community integrates into British society and that the veil was a “mark of separation” which makes people of other ethnic backgrounds feel uncomfortable.

The intervention of politicians was criticised both at previous hearings and by Muslim community leaders. At yesterday’s central London appeal against the tribunal’s decision, Mrs Azmi’s counsel said comparing her with someone who wore a balaclava or facial bandages after an accident was “not appropriate”.

Declan O’Dempsey said, “The tribunal chose a person who decided for some reason to wear a balaclava to teach the students. With respect to the tribunal, it’s not a comparator which was a reasonable one to choose.” He said other staff at the school wore the hijab but there are “different strands of belief in Islam about the requirements for wearing the hijab or niqab”. Religious belief could be expressed verbally and also symbolically, he said. A comparison should have been made not between religion, but between religious beliefs.

Mr Justice Wilkie, who is hearing the appeal on a panel with two lay members, said, “You are saying that the characteristic of wearing the veil is a religious belief in its own right and it is not simply a manifestation of being a Muslim.”

Mrs Azmi’s claim was brought as a test case against Kirklees Borough Council under the new religious discrimination regulations, the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulation 2004. She did not attend the appeal because of “coverage”, the hearing was told.

Mr O’Dempsey told the hearing he had evidence that had not been before the earlier tribunal: a report from a council officer who observed Mrs Azmi teaching on two occasions, once wearing the niqab when she was with a male teacher and once when she did not wear the veil with a female teacher.

The report found “a difference between Mrs Azmi’s effectiveness” but said this could have been because of other factors and it was suggested that she be observed over a long period of time. The barrister said his client had not been given the opportunity.

Peter Oldham, on behalf of Kirklees Borough Council, said Mr O’Dempsey’s argument set up a “very uncertain and unworkable test”. He said, “How do you draw the line… one risks turning the employment tribunal into a religious seminary.”

He said the balaclava comparison exercise, which the previous tribunal panel conducted, was to “isolate and estimate the factor which it is unlawful for the employer to take into account”.

This is why, he said, they considered a woman who covered her face for a reason other than religious belief. “If I’m right that religious belief doesn’t include manifestations (of a religious belief) then the comparator is right.” It was necessary for Mrs Azmi’s pupils to have the best possible chance of learning English, he said.

The panel reserved its judgment to a later date.