LONDON - Britain was dragged into a debate Tuesday on Muslim women wearing full-face veils in public, with its biggest selling newspaper adding to calls from politicians to join European countries that have banned its use.
The topic had stayed below the British political radar until the past week when a judge ruled that a Muslim woman will be allowed to go on wearing a veil but must take it off while giving evidence at her trial.
Her case came after Birmingham Metropolitan College, in a central English city which has a large Muslim population, dropped a ban on Muslim face veils after thousands of people signed a petition against the rule.
Junior Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne called on Monday for a "national debate" on the issue.
It exploded onto the front pages Tuesday after The Sun, Rupert Murdoch's top-selling British tabloid, carried a huge splash with the headline "UNVEILED" over a picture of the woman defendant wearing a niqab.
The Sun, which sells 2.25 million copies a day, demanded "vital reforms" that would ban veils in schools, courts, hospitals, airports, banks and secure areas but give women "freedom to wear them in streets and parks."
By way of comparison, it carried a picture of veiled women in Birmingham - one of them flicking a V-sign with her fingers - next to a picture of uncovered women in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
There is no ban on wearing the full-face veil in Britain, and a number of Muslim women do so, particularly in cities with large ethnic communities such as London, Birmingham and Bradford.
The debate is one that Britain, which prides itself on a liberal heritage and ethnic tolerance, has largely avoided even as some of its European neighbours with large Muslim populations have acted.
France has banned women from wearing full-face veils in public since April 2011 and Belgium followed suit three months later.
Other nations are considering similar legislation, including Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands.