LONDON – Double-parked cars causing a traffic jam, mothers in a rush, a supervisor watching the gate: the usual end of a school day in South London. Except that the school is Iqra VA, a Muslim primary, and all the mothers are wearing the veil. Five of them even wear a niqab, the full veil that covers the whole face leaving only the eyes for the outside world to see. It is one of the many faith schools spreading across the UK, with full authorization from the government.
"This is a free country. Why is everybody so obsessed with the niqab while no one says anything about the women walking around half-naked?" asked a mother wearing the full veil, who did not want to give her name. She is a British citizen, separated from her husband and converted to Islam less than three years ago. "I don't have a husband and my father is dead. So don't come and tell me that somebody is making me wear it!"
This mother's testiness has been set off by a growing debate over the niqab in Britain, on the heels of two different events. The first happened in a court, when a 22-year-old woman refused to remove her full veil. After some hesitation, the judge had her remove it during her deposition and whenever she wanted to talk. She could however keep it on for the rest of the trial.
The second event took place at Birmingham Metropolitan College. The institution decided to ban the niqab at the start of school year. The move sparked uproar amongst some students, and an online petition opposing the decision gathered more than 8,000 signatures in just two days. On September 12, the College announced it was dropping the full-veil ban.
In both cases, the niqab remains authorized, though with limits in the eyes of the court. Still, the debate is changing in the UK. Until now, the mainstream political consensus was to allow women to wear the full veil, even while denouncing it as a symbol of women's oppression. Yet, there are more and more calls to create a legal framework around the issue.
Unlike what happened in France or Belgium, a total ban of the niqab in the streets is not in the cards and nobody is speaking out against the simple veil that covers just the hair. But Jeremy Browne, the Minister of State for Crime Prevention, publicly raised the possibility of a ban for minors, in schools and public places.
Without really taking sides on the substance of the debate, Prime Minister David Cameron expressed support for the Birmingham College in its attempt to impose the dress code it wanted.
Under the current legislation, schools are allowed to authorize or ban any item of clothing they wish, so long as they find the right balance between freedom of religion and "cohesion and good order in the school." As a matter of fact, pupils are rarely forbidden from wearing the niqab since it only concerns a very small number of girls.
Like other Muslim women who wear the full veil, Shamim Mulla, a British citizen of Indian origin, feels she is misunderstood. While she has been headteacher in a small kindergarten in East London for years, she is now about to fulfill her dream of opening her own school. "Not a Muslim school," she adds immediately.
She has been wearing the niqab since she was 14 but when in front of her pupils, she only covers her hair. "If I am to give them quality teaching, then they need to be able to see my face," she said. In the street however, she finds the full veil to be liberating. "I feel very pure when I wear it. Besides, it's a protection: have you ever heard of a veiled woman being raped?" she asked.
Mrs. Mulla, 35, insisted she was the one to ask her husband before they got married whether he would mind her wearing the veil, and not the other way around. She reckons more and more women are wearing it in London.
To try to understand this shift, a Muslim teacher from London who covers nothing else than her hair and opposes the niqab, tells the story of her niece. "Her parents sent her to a Muslim high school, where the board encourages students to wear the niqab. All girls were doing it so she starting doing it as well. She was the first one in my family," she said. She goes on to describe the parents' reaction. "They were happy. She got more respect than before."
In front of Iqra VA school, Fatima, who doesn't wear the niqab, shares this point of view. "I admire those who wear it. It's a difficult, yet beautiful gesture." For the rest of society, it is often a beauty that is hard to see.