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Aishah Azmi

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Aishah Azmi

Aishah Azmi (born 1982) is a British Muslim woman who came to public attention in 2006 after being suspended and then dismissed from her position as a classroom assistant in a Church of England faith school for refusing to take off her niqab (face veil) when required to work in a classroom alongside a male teacher. A picture of her in her niqab appeared on the front pages of tabloids, such as The Sun and the Daily Mail, as well as newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and The Times. Prior to the outcome of her religious discrimination tribunal case, Prime Minister Tony Blair broke from the traditional protocol of not commenting on a case before the courts, and gave his backing for her dismissal, for which he was severely criticised by the Employment Tribunal.

Azmi v. Kirklees MBC

Main article: Azmi v Kirklees Metropolitan Borough Council

When Azmi, then 22 years old, went for a job interview at the Headfield Church of England Junior School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire she was wearing a hijab, which shows the face but not the hair. According to United Kingdom Employment Appeal Tribunal's summary of the facts of the case, she did not inform the interviewers that she intended to wear the niqab.[1] When she started her employment she requested that she be allowed to wear the niqab and the school initially agreed, pending the advice of the local council's education service.[1] The head teacher decided to observe Azmi in the classroom and concluded that the veil was detrimental to Azmi's teaching because it limited her diction and prevented the children from observing her facial expressions. Azmi was asked to remove the veil when working directly with children.[1][2]

Azmi informed the school that she would only remove the veil if no male member of staff was present. This was deemed unacceptable by her employer, Kirklees Council, which suspended her pending the outcome of the tribunal case. A Kirklees Council education official told the press that the school's decision had “...nothing to do with religion, it’s about what makes practical common sense. We accepted that the veil could be worn anywhere in the school except the classroom. We have a lot of pupils who do not speak English as a first language and you have to be able to see people’s lips move when being taught.”[3] Azmi remained on full pay although suspended from her position until the outcome of her legal case.

Azmi had maintained that the wearing of a niqab was a personal decision, although towards the end of October the Sunday Times published an article claiming that her decision was actually made following a consultation with a local Islamic cleric, Mufti Yusuf Sacha at the Tablighi mosque in Dewsbury. Sacha issued a fatwa stating that it was obligatory for women to wear the niqab in the presence of men who were not their blood relatives, and this would include Azmi wearing a niqab whilst working with children.[4] However this fatwa on wearing the niqab is strongly disputed by other British Muslim clerics.

Azmi took her case to an employment tribunal on the basis that she had been discriminated against on religious grounds and that she had been victimised as a result of complaining. The tribunal dismissed her case of religious discrimination but found that she had been victimised. She was awarded £1000 in compensation for this victimisation and, because in dealing with her grievance the school had not followed minimum grievance procedures set out in the law, it was bound to increase this award by between 10% and 50%. It chose the minimum increase of 10% and therefore awarded her £1100 in total.

Azmi was subsequently dismissed by Kirklees Council.[5] She lodged papers with the Employment Appeals Tribunal in London, although she was publicly advised by her MP Shahid Malik to drop the case, since 'there is no real support for it'.[6] Azmi's legal representative, Nick Whittingham, of Kirklees Law Centre, expected the case to be heard in the first half of 2007. It was dismissed on 30 March 2007.[2]

Government reaction

Her case came on top of remarks by Jack Straw who said that he had asked women visiting his constituency's surgeries to consider uncovering their noses and mouths in order to allow better communication. He claimed that no woman had ever chosen to wear a full-veil after this request.[7][8][9] When asked whether he would prefer veils to be abolished completely, Straw said: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather."[10]

As the case was ongoing, Phil Woolas, a junior minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government, said that "she should be sacked". Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, also signalled that he considered women who wore a veil when teaching should be sacked, and added that in his opinion the veil was a "mark of separation" that made him "uncomfortable".[11][12]

Employment Appeal Tribunal, March 2007

On 30 March 2007, the Employment Appeal Tribunal dismissed Azmi's appeal. It held that the employment tribunal had been entitled to find that she was not directly discriminated against on the ground of religion or belief. The appeal tribunal found that there had been indirect discrimination, but that this was acceptable on the facts of this particular case because it was an appropriate way of raising educational standards.[13] The Employment Appeal Tribunal decision is important because it confirmed for the first time that it is possible for an employer to be held to have discriminated against an employee in relation to an external manifestation of belief (such as a veil) and that such discrimination could be direct or indirect. Employers would only be acting lawfully if the discrimination is indirect and the employer has a lawful justification.

See also

Notes

External links

  • Andrew Gilligan discusses links between Aishah Azmi and Tablighi Jamaat
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