Should Britain ban the niqab and burka while driving?

Safety debate over whether Muslim women wearing religious garb can see clearly

The wearing of religious head coverings behind the wheel need not be made illegal, despite calls from some quarters to ban wearing the burka and niqab while driving.

That’s the considered response from a national car leasing company which says that common sense should prevail in this argument which right-wing and anti-immigration groups have made more emotive than it needs to be.

According to Yorkshire based Flexed.co.uk, sufficient motoring law already exists to cover the issue, and that leaves it down to the police to make the correct judgement calls on a case-by-case basis.

“The charge of ‘Driving without due care and attention’ covers a wide spectrum of sins,” says Flexed.co.uk spokesperson Mark Hall, “and this can easily be applied for wearing clothing related to any religious group.”

“Let’s make it clear – this isn’t about what believers in a certain religion wear behind the wheel. Anybody wearing a face covering can fall foul of the law.”

What’s the issue?

• A 2013 YouGov poll found a majority of people in favour of banning the burka altogether in the UK. Flexed expects that the position has not changed much in the two-and-a-half years since the poll was conducted.
• Petitions regularly appear on the Government petitions website calling for a ban on clothing related to the hijab while driving, which often raise several hundred signatures.
• The issue is a frequent dog whistle for right-wing groups

“There’s often a misunderstanding as to what the hijab actually is,” Hall explains, “And it can mean – for observant Muslim women – anything from a simple head scarf, to the all-encompassing burka.”

The problem lies in that the general public – who appear to be largely in favour of a ban – not realising that there is a difference, and that not all head coverings are a “burka”.

Flexed.co.uk found from its own investigations that women driving in a full burka is very rare indeed.

In fact, a woman who wears a burka in public would almost certainly come from a more strictly observant family that would not allow an unaccompanied woman to drive a car.

Although there are isolated reports of burka-clad drivers in some areas, it’s extremely rare in the United Kingdom, and there’s little chance of most drivers ever encountering such a sight, Flexed.co.uk says. “Even when I worked in the Middle East, I never once saw it.”

“The niqab is a different conversation altogether, and we’re convinced that it’s a non-issue,” says Flexed.co.uk’s Mark Hall.

The BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary Muslim Driving School, which followed the lives of three women working as driving instructors, proved that driving while wearing the niqab is perfectly safe. The programme included one instructor in Blackburn who wore a full face veil, and showed herself to be an extremely competent driver.

“As long as eyesight isn’t obstructed, there’s no reason why the veil can’t be worn behind the wheel,” says Hall.

“There’s no such argument for motorcycle riders, and their helmets offer far less peripheral vision than a simple cloth veil,” he argues.

Flexed.co.uk is of the opinion that if the police and government thought otherwise, wearing the veil while driving would have been made illegal long ago.

“The Crown Prosecution Service would have tried a test case to prove the issue one way or another, but as they haven’t it’s clear that government legal departments think that it is perfectly safe.”

Hall says that objections to the veil in modern society are purely down to prejudice among a public that is no longer scared to voice its fears.

“People are scared of the unfamiliar, and to see a veiled driver rings alarm bells in some people.”

He’s got this advice: “Calm down. It’s perfectly legal and perfectly safe. Everybody has a right to drive, whatever their background, whatever their religion.”