UK: Muslim Veil: Why are we not accepting each other?

Burnley in Lancashire, England, is a city of simmering ethnic tension that burst into violent riots between Muslims and non-Muslims in 2001. Yet Burnley College has become the first in Britain to ban the veil or 'items of clothing which cover the face' ostensibly for security reasons. Britain has prided itself on being more tolerant than other European countries such as France or Belgium that have banned the veil in schools, colleges or public buildings. So what is it like to be a Muslim student from Burnley? Find out from HUMA MOHYUDDIN.

One reason I went to London to study at university was to move away from the uncomfortable paranoid feeling that the majority of people in Burnley and neighbouring towns made me feel. I have lived in Burnley my whole life and have always felt the racial separation to be a huge issue.

When I walked in the Sixth Form common room at my school in Burnley, this separation was quite clear - Muslims were filling one side of the room and non-Muslims the other. I asked myself: why are we not accepting each other?

Banning the veil is again saying that a Muslim woman who is wearing the veil is not accepted. Why not? For being herself? Dressing modestly should liberate the Muslim woman, it shouldn't oppress her.

As a Muslim girl myself, I feel as though the so-called 'security' reasons for the ban at Burnley College are an outdated excuse, and forcing someone to take off the veil is discrimination.

At least half if not more of the people in Burnley are Muslim. Therefore, one would think that Burnley authorities would be more considerate and understanding of other faiths and beliefs. I wonder why Muslims do not get a say in what is happening, especially when it directly affects them.

After the Burnley riots in 2001 I came across a young person who quite confidently said he disliked Muslims, and the reason for it was that his parents were hurt during the riots.

I remember that when the riots broke out, it was said that one reason for the tensions was that Muslims believed they were not getting the same rights as the rest of the population and that the higher, better-paid jobs were given to non-Muslims. Though I don't believe this to be true now, I do believe the tensions are still there and other 'tactics' are being used to separate the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims, like banning the veil.

I was 11 when I first started wearing the headscarf and perhaps too young to realise the full reason as to why I was wearing it. All I knew at that time was that I wanted to. As I got older, of course I understood it more. But trying to explain this to my non-Muslims friends was hard. They were not keen to understand and were not eager to accept.

I remember a time in high school when a couple of my non-Muslim friends asked me to take off my headscarf. When I asked why, they had no valid reason. "You will look better showing your hair," they said, or: "Other Muslims don't so why should you have to?" Or: "Your sister doesn't so why do you?"

Forcing a Muslim girl to take off her veil is changing who she wants to be. I feel as though excuse after excuse is being generated as to why a woman should not wear the veil. If your friend decides to wear the veil tomorrow, would you think any less of her? She is the same person she has always been, that you have always known.

Imperial College in London has a system where Muslim women have to show their face at the door for security reasons, but are then allowed to cover their face once more when they are through the door.

This system would be more considerate if the security officer was female and then the Muslim woman would not feel as uncomfortable, but it is something I think Burnley College should consider. Especially when their policies could force Muslim women to quit university.

As a Muslim, I believe that nothing overpowers belief, and religion is more important than anything else. Banning the veil is pushing a Muslim woman to choose between her belief and her education. Where are her rights?

I always heard that London was more multicultural and more accepting of who you are and where you are from. This made me consider university in London as I no longer wanted to be pushed to the other side of the common room.

I feel a lot more comfortable in London, perhaps because I don't have the label I had in Burnley. That made me free to be myself. Not having to be labelled, the feeling of individuality is liberating. Therefore, no paranoia.

My friends now vary across all different nationalities, races and religions. I don't feel forced into only being friends with Muslims. From my first year university experience in London with all types of people, I believe my confidence has grown.

Being at the Bartlett School of Architecture we are all encouraged to be ourselves and be open to understanding other cultures and people. We embrace and share our skills and knowledge.

I feel accepted.

* Huma Mohyuddin is a second year student at University College London's Bartlett School of Architecture.

Wearing a burka does not prevent Muslim women 'engaging in everyday life' in Britain. Baroness Warsi defended the right of Muslim women to 'choose' to wear the burka.

She suggested that many Muslim women choose to wear the veil of their own free will. "Why should we tell women what to wear? What it boils down to is choice. If women don't have a choice over what to wear then they are oppressed.

"But if a woman has a choice, and she chooses to wear whatever she chooses to wear then she's not oppressed is she? She's choosing what she wants."

Critics claim that the burka alienates Muslim women from the rest of society. But Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi said the burka did not act as a barrier in itself. She added: "There are women who wear the burka who run extremely successful businesses - internet businesses, which don't actually require you to be there face to face. I don't believe it's for the state to say what we can and cannot wear. Any woman who supports the burka should wear one."

There is a social and economic pressure on Muslim women not to cover themselves with the hijab or niqab. Warsi is a member of the Tory Cabinet because she does not cover herself. Only those Muslim women who are having post of responsibility are those who do not cover themselves. Only those Muslim women who do not cover themselves receive state honours. Banning the veil or blocking the building of minarets would alienate the Muslim community and threaten social cohesion.

Some young Muslim feminists consider the hijab and niqab political symbols, a way of rejecting Western excesses such as binge drinking, casual sex and drug use. Which is more liberating: being judged on the length of your skirt and size of your breasts, or on your character and intelligence?

A careful reading of the Qur'an shows that just about everything Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available 1,400 years ago to Muslim women, who are considered equal to men in spirituality, education and worth. When Islam offers women so much, why are Western men so obsessed with Muslim women's attire?

Even former government ministers Gordon Brown and John Reid have made disparaging remarks about the niqab, and they hail from Scotland, where men wear skirts.

"Common sense" not to wear the niqab because it makes social relations "more difficult"? Nonsense. If this were the case, why are cell phones, e-mail, text messaging and fax machines in daily use?

Covering ones body up does not reduce intelligence or physical and mental capabilities in running a home, raising children, getting a degree, making money, being an informed member of society or their social interaction with other fellow humans. The niqab does not make them inferior.

Why are people reluctant to associate with us as willingly and openly as with other Muslim women who don't cover their face? We don't bite or are any different. Is is because they are afraid that we are more inclined to 'terrorism' because we choose to follow our religion more closely? On the contrary, people who follow their religions closely, any religion, realise that they are under more obligation to uphold the sanctity of their faith under all circumstances and no religion teaches violence.

Women who cover their face and observe niqab are as normal as anyone else. If we are the victims then we are indeed the victims of mass propaganda and false advertising against Muslim women that has caused this breach of trust between us and the rest of the world.

We are very normal, we are very human and we are as intelligent as anyone else....the real beauty and inner strength lies within the mind. By wearing hijab or niqab, a Muslim woman is able to confidently project her opinions and ideas without having the pressure of being secretly or publicly critiqued for their body.

Today, our society encourages women to show off their bodies, and not show off their brains. Female models are often underweight, and the media tells us this is the way women should look like!! dont make me laugh!!!!

Iftikhar Ahmad