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School aide's veil stirs debate

British official wants her fired

LONDON -- A British government minister joined an increasingly bitter debate about the rights of Muslim women to veil their faces, saying a teaching assistant should be fired for insisting on wearing one in school.

Phil Woolas, the government's Race and Faith minister, was quoted by the Sunday Mirror newspaper demanding that Aishah Azmi, a Muslim teaching assistant, be fired for refusing to remove her veil at work.

``She should be sacked. She has put herself in a position where she can't do her job," Woolas said.

Azmi has refused to remove her black veil, which leaves only her eyes visible, in front of male colleagues.

She was suspended from her job, but has taken her case to an industrial tribunal, a court that handles cases on employment law, which will make a decision in the next few weeks.

Azmi, who is 24 and has two children, has insisted that she had been willing to remove her veil in class, as long as there were no adult males present.

``She is denying the right of children to a full education by insisting that she wears the veil. If she is saying that she won't work with men, she is taking away the right of men to work in school," Woolas said.

The debate on the veils began earlier this month, when Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary who is now leader of the House of Commons, said Muslim women visiting his office should remove their veils.

The opposition Conservatives also weighed in on the contentious issue, with one of the party's top officials accusing Muslim leaders of encouraging a ``voluntary apartheid" that could help spawn home-grown terrorism.

David Davis, a top Conservative Party official, supported Straw for starting the debate.

``What Jack touched on was the fundamental issue of whether in Britain we are developing a divided society," Davis told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

``Whether we are inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid," he added.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has praised Straw for raising the issue ``in a measured and considered way," and urged Britons to engage in such discussions without ``becoming hysterical."

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