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25th September 2013

Full face veils – must they be allowed at work?

The Department of Health is currently reviewing whether NHS staff should be allowed to wear full face veils at work. Laurie Penny (on Question Time) asserted that the only people who should be talking about what [Moslem] women should be allowed to wear are “Moslem women and no-one else”. The feelings therefore of individual patients or service users in a healthcare or in simply a care environment would not appear to be of concern to her. Care homes as well as GP and dental surgeries are intimate places – ones where individuals may feel the most vulnerable and where trust is paramount. Trusting those where we can see only their eyes is alien to most of us, and I submit that this feeling is not related to religious or sexual discrimination.

As the law stands at present, there is substantial freedom for individual employers to decide on what is appropriate. Reportedly, at least one hospital (Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust) has introduced a ban on full face veils.

But it would be wise for an employer to have in mind the reasoning behind any restrictions it places on those who want to wear the hijab. The need for intimate work and the consequential feelings of service users in that context  might be argued as legitimate. Health and safety considerations could well also apply, provided that they are genuine considerations.

But employers need to be wary in any decision that could be construed to being related to religious discrimination or to sex or race.

Muslim bodies with whom we have worked have been willing to discuss these issues and to also help dispel the myths that create islamophobia. The latter help is important because employees and service users can both have this irrational anxiety. Employers working in communities with a significant Muslim population may benefit from making contact with, for example, their local Council of Mosques. Our experience of such Councils has been good.

Malcolm Martin - QCS Expert Human Resources Contributor

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