Axed teacher denies refusing to remove veil in classroom

A Muslim teaching assistant who was suspended by her school has denied she refused to take off her veil while in class.

Aishah Azmi insisted she had always been willing to remove the veil in front of children at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire – but would not do so while male colleagues were present.

Ms Azmi spoke out as Ken Livingstone joined the ranks of people who want to see veils disappear, saying “most people” held the same view.

The London mayor’s comments follow the outcry over the issue sparked by Commons Leader Jack Straw when he revealed he asks his Muslim constituents to remove their veils in meetings.

The mayor has criticised Mr Straw’s approach saying it infringed women’s rights to wear what they choose.

Mr Livingstone said that change would have to come over the “long term” from within the Muslim community, rather than through actions of “old white male politicians”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Getting Muslim women to give up the veil, which I suspect is something most people would like to see in the long-term – including myself – is not going to be done by old white male politicians telling them to do it.

“It will be change from within the Muslim community, and that’s why it is important we should engage with the progressive elements and leaders in the Muslim community, rather than what really America has been doing over the last 30 years, which is alliances with, say, the Saudi royal family and the most backward and reactionary elements.”

Mr Livingstone previously rejected Mr Straw’s comments as “an infringement on the right of freedom of religion” because of the circumstances in which he made the request of constituents.

The Mayor said: “Jack Straw’s remarks are in fact a situation with elements of coercion – ‘you have come to discuss concerns about your safety, would you like to remove your veil’, ‘you are concerned about your drains, would you like to remove your veil’.”

Kirklees Council confirmed yesterday that Ms Azmi, 24, had been suspended, and the matter was to be decided by an employment tribunal.

The school is understood to have deemed face-to-face to face contact was essential in her role as a bilingual support worker. It has stressed that the action had “nothing to do” with religion.

But Ms Azmi said today: “Specifically, the management assertion was that you have to take it off while in school. It’s to that I answered that I cannot take it off in front of a male colleague.

“I have no problem with the children, I say I prefer (to work) with a female teacher, but if that’s not possible I can’t take it off in front of a male colleague. It was never about taking it off with the children. I was ready to do that.”

Ms Azmi also told Today that her students – who were 11-year-olds and had “very good English” – had “never complained” that they found it difficult when she was wearing a veil.

She insisted she could continue to carry out her duties “perfectly well” wearing the garment.

Row over veils continues

The row over veils continued as protesters prepared to hold demonstrations outside Mr Straw’s morning surgery in Blackburn, Lancashire.

The former Home Secretary hosted two advice surgeries in his constituency yesterday, which both passed off without incident as the town’s Muslim leaders rallied round in support of their MP.

A protest is expected this morning when Mr Straw hosts a surgery outside the Bangor Street Community Centre but it will not be on the scale of an earlier planned event of more than 8,000 people – which was abandoned after police said they were unable to manage more than 500 demonstrators.

Following a meeting with Asian Labour councillors and senior mosque officials, Mr Straw reiterated that he stood by his remarks and would not offer an apology to anyone offended.

Mr Straw said no one had challenged his right to say that he preferred women to remove their veils when they visited him.

He said: “I stand by my remarks and see no reason to apologise for them. This is a free and democratic country.

“But I am wholly opposed to any suggestion that the law should be changed, nor have I disputed the right for a Muslim woman to wear the hijab.”

Mr Straw received a largely warm response from people in Blackburn yesterday.

He was greeted with applause and cheers as he left a press conference at Blackburn Town Hall but one protester shouted: “You are a racist, Straw.”

Yesterday Mr Straw denied suggestions that his comments had fuelled divisions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Last week a woman was racially abused at a bus stop in Liverpool and her veil was torn from her face.

Mr Straw said: “I have spoken to police about the incident in Liverpool and I hope and pray that the perpetrator is caught and punished.

“The wearing of veils in schools has been an ongoing issue for some time and is a separate matter.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday October 16, 2006.
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