UK minister sparks Muslim veil row

By Nigel Morris

Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has been accused of discrimination against Muslim women after disclosing he asks them to remove their veils in meetings so they can speak "face to face".

Straw claimed that wearing a full veil, which he described as a "visible statement of separation and difference", made it harder to bring communities together.

His comments, in his local newspaper in Blackburn, brought angry charges of prejudice and ignorance of the Muslim religion.

Mr Straw described how he reconsidered his views on the sensitive issue after a meeting last year when a veiled woman greeted him with the words: "It's really nice to meet you face-to-face, Mr Straw."

He wrote: "It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking.

"In part, this was because of the apparent incongruity between the signals which indicate common bonds - the entirely English accent, the couples' education (wholly in the UK) - and the fact of the veil. Above all it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face-to-face' who I could not see."

He wrote how he was worried about the implications for community relations of the "increasing trend" of Muslim women wearing veils.

Mr Straw, who is now Leader of the Commons, said: "My concerns could be misplaced, but I think there is an issue here."

He wrote: "The value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or phone call, is that you can - almost literally - see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say."

He said he now asks, with a female member of staff present, for the women to remove their veils and added: "I can't recall a single occasion when the lady concerned had refused to lift her veil; and most I ask seem relieved I have done so."

Mr Straw later told BBC Radio Lancashire that this was "an issue that needs to be discussed because in our society, we are able to relate, particularly to strangers, by being able to read their faces, and if you can't read people's faces, that does provide some separation".

He said he understood why some women wanted to be covered, quoting a constituent who told him she felt "more comfortable when she was outside wearing the veil and she was less troubled by people".

He added: "What I'm saying on the other side is, would those people who do wear the veil think about the implications for community relations."

The Islamic Human Rights Commission described the Minister's comments as objectionable, Massoud Shadjareh, its chairman, said: "It is astonishing someone as experienced and senior as Jack Straw does not realise the job of an elected representative is to represent the interests of the constituency, not to selectively discriminate on the basis of religion."

Rajnaara Akhtar, Chair of Protect-Hijab, said it was appalling that Mr Straw had "insulted" Muslim women.

She told BBC Radio 4's PM: "It seems to show a deep lack of understanding of the values of this religious choice to many women and the face veil is not taken lightly by the vast majority of women who choose to observe it."

Abdul Hamid Qureshi, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, warned that Straw would get criticisms "from all quarters".

He said: "What is he really concerned about? This is not helpful, it has got the potential to cause anger."

Daud Abdullah, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, acknowledged that the veil could cause "some discomfort to non-Muslims".

He added: "Even within the Muslim community the scholars have different views on this. There are those who believe it is obligatory for the Muslim woman to cover her face. Others say she is not obliged to cover up. It's up to the woman to make the choice."

Mr Straw has been MP for Blackburn for 27 years, during which time its ethnic make-up has been dramatically transformed.

Muslims now make up about one quarter of the Lancashire town's population.

Two years ago a Muslim schoolgirl lost her High Court battle for the right to wear a more conservative style of dress than her school allowed.

Shabina Begum said she was being denied her "right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs" but the headteacher and governors of her Luton school said allowing her to wear the long jilbab - which does not include a veil - could cause divisions among pupils.

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