Sunday, September 22, 2013

Accommodations Made for Muslim Woman in Crown Court

On September 16, 2013, Judge Peter Murphy ruled at Blackfriars Crown Court that a Muslim woman on trial could wear her full-face veil throughout her trial, but not while she was delivering evidence. The 22-year old black Muslim convert from East London is accused of intimidating a witness at Finsbury Park Mosque in North London. The Judge ultimately did make some significant concessions to the defendant. He allowed her to not testify in open court with her face uncovered and instead offered some alternatives: she would be allowed to give evidence through a live video link or from behind a screen that hid her from the main court room and only showed her face to the judge, jurors, and her counsel. He also ruled that there could be no artist’s sketch of her face while it was uncovered.

This whole issue may seem confusing to those not familiar with Islamic practices/culture, but the woman (who has not been named) claimed that it is against her beliefs to allow any man who is not her husband to see her face. Her lawyers argued that it would also breach her human rights to remove her niqab (a full-face veil that only shows a woman’s eyes) against her wishes. On the other hand, the article does note that she only just began wearing the veil last May; but Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne is now addressing the issue of whether or not the state should help prevent young women from having the veil unwillingly imposed on them.

Judge Murphy’s recent decision is at odds with previous rulings made at the Crown Court: in March 2012, a judge ruled that a woman wearing a niqab could not sit as a juror for an attempted murder trial. This ruling also occurred a few days after a college was forced to turn over its ban on students wearing the veil. Additionally, the Birmingham Metropolitan College was recently accused of discriminating against Muslims when staff, students, and visitors were told to remove face coverings so they could be more easily identified (but this was eventually overturned in response to protests).

The issue Judge Murphy is addressing here is important, especially considering the increasing level of diversity in England and Wales: should concessions be made in court to people who claim that partaking in certain actions – that the rest of society willingly does – violates their religious beliefs? Judge Murphy claims that according to the Human Rights Act (1998), the defendant has the right to manifest her religion, but some restrictions of when she can and cannot wear her niqab in court are necessary in a democratic society. While some, including the Liberty organization, agree with this ruling, others accuse the judge of “pandering” the defendant and “bending over backwards” to accommodate someone who is unwilling to follow the rules of society that everyone else follows.

This case is difficult to address because Americans are guaranteed freedom to practice their religion under the First Amendment. But of course there will be some exceptions: if the practice of a particular religion comes into conflict with other laws already in place, which has priority? In this particular case, Judge Murphy has made a legitimate effort to balance this woman’s constitutional right to practice her religion freely with creating a fair and just trial. Those who disagree with this decision argue that seeing a person’s facial expressions/reactions during a trial is critical to assessing their credibility, especially when giving evidence or being questioned.  But again, Judge Murphy has somewhat accommodated this by making sure the woman’s face is revealed during the delivery of her evidence, but covered throughout the rest of the trial.

While some may argue Judge Murphy is entering a “slippery slope” with regards to making exceptions for religion, he is still accommodating the court’s need to see the woman’s entire face at certain points throughout the trial. Additionally, a person’s body language and reactions can be read in various ways: body language, tone of voice, etc. are also legitimate ways to determine someone’s reaction or feelings towards a particular statement.

Given that this woman is willing to accept the judge’s alternative, this seems like a legitimate solution to a problem that must be addressed (given the growing diversity in England and Wales). A definitive statement must be created as soon as possible so that judges know how to handle these types of situations with very religious people in following cases. This is a small but important accommodation: Judge Murphy’s decision demonstrates his respect for religious freedom and his recognition of the importance of following established law.

Do you believe Judge Murphy made a good decision or is he granting this woman an exemption from something that is necessary for the public to follow? 


Gabby D. said...

I think the issue of Muslim women and niqabs/hijabs is a very interesting topic. I did a research project/paper on a big issue in France where they were questioning whether or not young girls should be allowed to wear the hijabs in the classroom. Although that is different, for this topic I had to do a lot of background research on Muslim women and some of their traditions. Through my research I concluded that the Islamic religious traditions are not practiced lightly and that it is thought that anything done under the religion is done with the most dedication, willingness, and sincerity. Therefore getting a little background on the custom, I think it was completely valid for this judge to be able to offer this woman an exemption. Just because her outfit is "unusual" for our culture and make some people uncomfortable, that is no reason to discriminate against her. I believe she is absolutely covered by her freedom of religion to wear her niqab, and it would be a violation to ask her to remove it.

Liz L. said...
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Liz L. said...

Sharia law does not even accept a woman’s testimony. Thus, in the Islamic court room, this is not an issue. However, as the adherent to Islam chooses to live in a culture governed by different laws, she must be willing to accommodate Western culture as Western culture is to accommodate her. French law prohibits the wearing of the niqab in public (walking down the street, shopping etc.). Public safety, which underlies the intent of most of the legal system, demands the ability of authorities and witnesses to readily identify members of the public. Therefore, allowing a religious exemption for court room protocol undermines the purpose of the legal system. It is honorable of the judge to make every effort to accommodate an individual’s religious views. However, as in the recent case of Major Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter who did not want his beard shaven when he entered prison), where the court ruled that he could not keep his “religious beard” during incarceration, personal religious practices do not trump our constitutionally mandated legal system (the right to face an accuser).

Maddie C. said...

I think that it is right for the court to give the woman the exemption. Wearing the niqab is an important part of a woman’s religion as a Muslim. From the First Amendment, she has the right to exercise her religious practices. I can see how wearing the niqab could be a problem for her testimony, but she is willing to partake in the alternatives provided to her, removing the niqab only when necessary. I think the exemption allows the woman to exercise her right to wear her niqab as a part of her religion, while still aiding in the trial when needed.

Jennie M. said...

I think the judge made the right choice by offering this woman an exemption to keep her niqab on during all proceedings except to give evidence. As Gabby points out, this practice is not taken lightly by Muslim women and something they value very highly.

I imagine there are many Muslim women who would object to removing their niqabs at any point during the trial. I think it is a violation of the First Amendment to ask women of this faith to remove their hiqab at any time, but I'm glad the woman in this case was able to find a compromise that worked for her.

It is not our job, or that of the Court, to make value judgements on these religious beliefs, even if we completely disagree with their origin and practice. We may be living in so-called Western culture, but we cannot always expect or ask people of other faiths to give up their most fundamental beliefs in order to live here. Accommodation was the right decision in this case.

Kaela Diomede said...

As much as I do see the possibility of the slippery slope argument, I do think that the judge made the right decision. I know that Islamic practice can be very strict and in my opinion has some misogynistic elements (wearing a niqab to begin with), but who am I to say. It would be wrong and unjustifiable for this woman to be disrespected by forcing her to take off her veil. This is part of her beliefs, it is part of her religion, masking her face aside from anyone but her husband is her daily life, it is her right to wear what she wants and believes in.

I think that the alternative provided was a good compromise, I would not want the woman to be forced to deface herself in a public setting, but I do understand that its hard for someone to testify and not be able to see their face. People carry so many emotions and conviction in facial expression, eye contact, and body language.

Yessica M said...

I agree with the judge’s decision in working with the women to remove her hijab when she takes the witness stand so that the judge and the jury can see her face. I interpreted this as cooperation between the women and the judge that is very appropriate. The women agreed to abide by what the judge offered her and she did not seem to have a problem with it. If she accepted it then it becomes a legitimate solution to the problem. I also think that the argument that she has only started to wear the hijab in May is invalid. People may not be practicing their faith for many years but what matters is that they are religious and have decided to practice their rituals. Who are we to decide if she is really carrying out her religious rituals?

SC said...

This is a really difficult issue. While it would be nice to allow her to keep her face covered for the whole trial, it does not seem practical for a variety of reasons. I definitely agree that covering her face will make it hard for people to pick up nuances in her communication, as they will not be able to see her facial expressions. In addition, the fact that she only began to wear the veil last May also confounds the issue, and makes it appear as though she is wearing the veil under false pretenses, and is really wearing it in order to gain an advantage in the trial. The judge has been very accommodating up to this point, so I think it would be unfair of trying to accuse the court of preventing freedom of religion when the judge has already gone to great lengths to try to ensure that she can practice her religion freely. I was unaware, until reading Liz’s post, that sharia law cannot accept a woman’s testimony. Therefore, an argument could be made that having her testify is denying her religious freedom. However, I doubt that anyone would be onboard with exempting her from testifying.