Lord Ahmed told the Yorkshire Post that the veil was a “mark of separation, segregation and defiance against mainstream British culture”. He said: “There is nothing in the Koran to say that the wearing of a niqab is desirable, let alone compulsory. It’s purely cultural. It’s an identity thing which has been misinterpreted.
“They were supposed to be worn so that women wouldn’t be harassed. But my argument is that women, and communities as a whole, are now being harassed because they are wearing them. They are a physical barrier to integration.”
Lord Ahmed, Britain’s first Muslim peer, also expressed his views during a debate in Doha, Qatar, in which he backed the motion: “This House believes the face veil is a barrier to integration in the West”.
Last year Jack Straw sparked a public debate after he called on Muslim women to consider removing their veils. Lord Ahmed does not support a ban on veils, such as exists in the Netherlands, but wants a debate on the issue.
“We need to re-engage as responsible British citizens and be seen once more as contributors to society rather than people who are a burden, living parallel lives,” he said. On the case of Aishah Azmi, who lost her job as a teaching assistant for refusing to work without a niqab, he insisted veils were unhelpful in schools, courts and shops.
But Dr Hassan Alkatib, the former chairman of Leeds Grand Mosque and Leeds University’s campus imam said: “I don’t think it’s a big issue. So few women choose to wear niqab – not even five per cent – that I just think there are far more important things to worry about in our communities.”
The Muslim Council of Britain said Muslim women should have the right to wear whatever they like.