College 'veil ban' outrage manufactured on Twitter

Those things which make the headlines are often far from the most important parts of a story. Indeed, in some instances the headline is a wilful distortion of the entire issue in question, writes James Bloodworth.

In the age of internet news, this is inevitably amplified by the need for websites to attract clicks with manufactured outrage. And so it is with a story currently doing the rounds about a "veil ban" at a Birmingham college.

The story has been kept going this week after fresh comments by Liberal Democrat Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, who has said he wants a “national debate” over whether the state should step in to protect young from having the veil imposed upon them.

Cue media outrage: the idea that freedom from religion is as important as freedom of religion is apparently controversial.

Back to the original issue, however: whether one agrees with a veil ban or not – I don’t; and it’s actually the niqab which some secularists want to restrict, rather than the veil – there was never any question of Birmingham Metropolitan College bringing in a ‘veil ban’. A specific veil ban was never on the cards in any sense at all.

What the college wanted to do was introduce a policy which would have restricted the wearing of "all hoodies, hats, caps and veils while on the premises" so students were "easily identifiable": a policy without exceptions whether one’s dress was religious or otherwise.

The college has now backtracked after media (mostly Twitter) outrage. It will now allow “specific items of personal clothing to reflect their [students'] cultural values”.

What the college really means here of course is religious values, for it is hard to imagine the college is set to allow the wearing of hoodies on its premises – an item of clothing which certainly reflects the cultural values of many teenagers.

That religious followers should be afforded special treatment is nothing new of course. The college’s backing down, however, is confusing in that it implies the easy identification of students is not as big an issue as it was originally made out to be. Either students need to be easily identifiable or they don’t, including students of all religious denominations and ‘cultural values’.

The college’s backtracking also raises the issue of inequality: if the authorities there are happy to allow some students to wear headgear, then why not others? After all, what right do the college authorities have to judge the cultural value to a person of their clothing, regardless of whether that clothing choice stems from a religious belief or not?

It might well have been easier to stick to the original policy of a blanket ban on all head coverings, making clear that it was no such thing as a veil ban, and that all students were to be treated equally. Either that or the college should have dropped the clothing rule entirely – presuming the easy identification of students isn’t that big an issue after all. In any case, one rule for all, surely.

* James Bloodworth writes for Left foot