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Susan Williams: Whether it relates to wearing a crucifix or a niqab, religious freedom must be protected

WIlliams Susan Susan Williams contested Bolton West at the general election and responds here to Phillip Hollobone's proposal to ban the burqa.

During the course of my time as a parliamentary candidate in Bolton West, I debated on a number of occasions about the right to religious freedom and it has always been my view that this freedom is paramount in a fair and democratic society like ours. Whether that right means the freedom to say prayers, attend a faith school, wear a crucifix, a niqab or a burqa, it doesn’t matter - the right to religious freedom  must not be undermined.

I fear that some of the sweeping statements made on the subject of the niqab and the burqa are actually thinly veiled (no pun intended) expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment and curtail the freedom of women in their choice to dress as they wish, despite claiming the contrary view. In stating that banning the burqa or niqab will empower women, it actually does just the opposite by dictating to them what they can and cannot wear. Phillip Hollobone MP, in his speech on the subject reported on ConHome this week, made such a contradictory assertion.

His view that the woman he encountered in the park dressed in full burqa did not want any normal human interaction with anyone else is pure speculation, as is the view that she wears the burqa because she finds our society objectionable. He said: "In my view and that of my constituents, the burqa is not an acceptable form of dress and banning it should be seriously considered".  Was the woman he met in the park not one of his constituents?

I met plenty of women during the course of my candidacy who wore the niqab - they did so as a symbol of modesty and none of them that I met had been forced to do so. I am not trying to make the claim that all women who cover their faces do so of their own free will, because that would be to join the ranks of the sweeping statement, but to generalise that the covering of the face equals repression is wrong.

There is misogyny to be found in every country, every religion and every walk of life, but it is certainly not the hallmark of Islam - I personally encountered nothing but hospitality, warmth and respect from all the Muslim men I met during my candidacy.

Mr Hollobone also raised the question of security in relation to the wearing of the niqab or burqa. Where identification is needed, whether at an airport, in a bank or at a police station, of course it is reasonable to ask someone to reveal their face, but that does not preclude them from covering it at other times and is not a reason to legalise a ban on the niqab or burqa.

Banning the burqa or the niqab would be to go down a route of restriction that I never want to see in this country and for those of any religion or none, we must protect those freedoms we enjoy.

We should also avoid characterising the many by the actions of the few and avoid some of the hysteria being touted in the media and elsewhere.  It will be through dialogue, not restrictive legislation, that we can make progress and through tolerance that we will surely build a better society.


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