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News ->Muslim Women should unveil says Jack Straw

(5 October 2006)

Veiled Muslim womanLeader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw has caused controversey by asking Muslim women in his constituency to remove their veils (Nikab) when consulting with him about issues in the Blackburn region. In his regular column for a Lancashire newspaper, he stated his reasons; that the veil acted as a "visible statement of separation and difference" and that being able to see a face would help in improving community relations. In later interviews he added that he had received a positibe response from his muslim constituents with most agreeing to remove the veil.

On the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme he stated that he would prefer that veils be discarded completely. "I am not talking about being perscriptive, but communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers - people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able to pass the time of day. That's more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That's just a fact of life".

Mr Straw explained that he wanted to create a mature debate about the issue in a society where watching facial expressions was important for contact between different people. "I come to this out of a profound committment to equal rights for Muslim communities and an equal concern about adverse development about parallel communities" he told 'Today' programme listeners.

Mr Straw's comments have provoked a mixed response from Muslim groups. The Lancashire Council of Mosques described his comments as "ill-judged and misconceived" and said many women found them "offensive and disturbing" but Dr Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he could understand Mr Straw's discomfort. The Islamic Human Rights Commission claimed the Blackburn MP's request would cause selective discrimination. "It is astonishing that someone as experienced and senior as Jack Straw does not realise that the job of an elected representative is to represent the interests of the constituency, not to selectively discriminate on the basis of religion," said commission chairman Massoud Shadjareh.

The Protect Hijab organisation issued a statement noting that "While it is commendable that Mr Straw has taken steps to find out about the Muslim woman’s veil and understand its significance; it is also perplexing that in the same breath, he is asking women who wear it to remove it in his presence."

Protect-Hijab is concerned that Mr Straw’s statement shows a deep misunderstanding of the significance of the face veil to those Muslim women who choose to observe it, and his professed concern for community relations is largely unfounded. “There are thousands if not millions of women around the world who wear the face veil and their societies function very well and they are able to conduct their daily affairs without any problems. So I do not buy his argument and I think it is spurious grounds for restricting freedoms which form the foundations of our society,” stated Rajnaara Akhtar, chair of Protect-Hijab.

Protect-Hijab is concerned that Mr Straw’s statements may be perceived by the Muslim community as a step towards constraining the freedom of choice for Muslim women in how they choose to dress in Britain .


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