The French burqa debate has crossed the Channel. Despite calls from some groups for a full or partial ban on veils, there is currently no ban on Islamic dress in the UK – although schools were allowed to set out their own dress code in 2007 after several high-profile court cases. In January 2010, Schools Secretary Ed Balls said it was “not British” to tell people what to wear in the street.
But writing in the Independent, journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who chairs the group British Muslims for Secular Democracy, said she supported restrictions on wearing the face veil in key public spaces. “This covering makes women invisible, invalidates their participatory rights and confirms them as evil temptresses.”
Schools Secretary Ed Balls is facing legal challenges from faith groups and individuals over his announcement of mandatory sex education lessons for pupils. Religious groups reacted with anger to the move by the Schools Secretary, which will make it compulsory for all pupils aged 15 will learn about relationships, sex and drugs over the course of a year. The age of consent in the UK is 16.
The Muslim Council of Britain vowed to mount a challenge to the new laws that it says contravene the right for children to be taught according to their parents’ tradition. Shahid Akmal, chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain’s education committee, said parents would be forced to break the law because of their beliefs. “It will cause difficulty,” he said. “I cannot condone people breaking the law, but it will be an individual decision and some parents will feel that it’s the only option open to them.”
The new legislation will also force faith schools – at least one forth of all British schools – to teach more than just the biology of reproduction and include lessons on contraception, homosexuality and civil partnerships.
The U.K. government said schools in England must do more to prevent violent extremists and terrorist groups including al-Qaeda from recruiting students, and issued guidelines on how to combat the threat. A 44-page pamphlet released today by the Department for Children, Schools and Families advises teachers how to spot and help vulnerable pupils age 5 to 11 in schools across the country. “We have learned from past experience that a security response is not enough,” Schools Secretary Ed Balls said in the pamphlet. “We need to address the underlying issues that can attract people toward violent extremist causes.” The guidelines are part of a larger campaign unveiled by the government in June to raise awareness of extremism in local areas that include schools, colleges and universities. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said then Britain can’t wait for another attack like the July 2005 London suicide bombings in which 52 people were killed, and that preventative action is needed. Among the U.K. population of 61 million are 1.6 million followers of Islam. Some 800,000 of the Muslims in Britain are under 25, according to the government, which yesterday set up an advisory group to ensure young Muslims have access to democratic channels for dealing with concerns. There is no “typical profile” of U.K.-based extremists influenced by al-Qaeda, according to the pamphlet, titled “Learning to be Safe Together.” It advises teachers that they can come from diverse geographical areas, ethnic and cultural backgrounds and include converts to Islam. Caroline Alexander and Camilla Hall report.