Last month Tony Blair said the veil row was part of a necessary debate about the way the Muslim community integrates into British society. He said the veil was a “mark of separation” which makes people feel uncomfortable. But Charlie Taylor, deputy head of Turton high school arts and media college, Bolton, does not share the politicians’ concerns. “I should know about face covering,” he laughs from behind a generous beard. “Communication is more than just facial expression; mostly you know whether pupils are taking something in from what they say and how they say it. We don’t see the veil as an issue here.”
For the past two or three years, a small but growing number of Turton’s female Muslim sixth formers have chosen to wear the niqab – which covers the face – and staff have chosen to respect their choice. These students are not retiring violets. Indeed, they are among the feistiest students in the sixth form. Like many young women who have taken up the niqab in the UK, they wear it proudly, an outward sign, they say, of their deep faith, and a statement of their cultural identity.
Turton, in the largely white, northern suburbs of Bolton, close to the Pennine foothills, is the last place one would expect to find students wearing the niqab, given that most schools in northern towns, even those with a largely Muslim intake, allow students to wear the hijab (the headscarf), but stop short of the veil. But Turton’s sixth form of 500 draws from diverse cultures, and John Porteous, the head, is proud of the mix: “I think, increasingly, Asian heritage students and particularly Muslim girls are attracted to the sixth form because they find it a sympathetic place to be.”
All of Turton’s upper sixth Muslim girls – whether veiled, headscarf wearers, or bare-headed – who agreed to speak to The TES regard themselves as fully integrated into British society. They also respect each other’s choice of dress, believing it expresses their differing piety. They were all taking A-levels and plan to study for careers ranging from optometry to politics. Their dress, they say, is about their faith and cultural identity, not about wanting to be separate.