Ban the veil
By Padraic Flanagan
CONCERNED Britons gave massive backing last night to calls for Muslim women to ditch the veil.
An astonishing 97 per cent of Daily Express readers agreed that a ban would help to safeguard racial harmony.
His call followed moves across Europe, and Muslim countries including Turkey and Tunisia, to curb the wearing of traditional Muslim dress. Mr Straw stoked up the row yesterday by saying the veil was a barrier to good race relations.
And he admitted he would prefer that the face-covering garments were not worn at all.
His comments came after he disclosed that he asks women he meets at constituency meetings to remove their veils so that they can truly talk "face to face".
He was supported by senior figures, including a Muslim peer and the Bishop of London. Tony Blair backed his right to speak his mind.
Mr Straw faced fierce criticism from some Muslim groups. But Muslim peer Baroness Uddin said there was a need for a "measured debate" and added that the nation should "also consider the status of Muslim women in this country".
She added: "I think it’s about human rights on both sides – Jack’s right to say and the women’s right to wear what they please."
The Bishop of London, the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, sympathised with Mr Straw but said it was an explosive issue not easily resolved. He also backed Mr Straw’s claim that wearing the veil was not required by the Muslim holy book, the Koran.
Dr Chartres added: "I can understand why he has said it. My understanding is that the veil came from the habit of upper-class Christian women in the Byzantine empire, and it has become a symbolic issue."
Heiress Jemima Khan, a convert to Islam, said: "Covering the face is completely unnecessary in Islam. I have never read anywhere in the Koran that a woman is obliged to cover her face.
"That said, Muslim women will argue that a skeletal 14-year-old on a catwalk is equally disturbing."
Muslim writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown said: "For a change I totally agree with Jack Straw. I think it’s completely unacceptable for these local Muslim ‘representatives’ to react how they are.
"Muslim women constantly talk about how Western women dress, so why shouldn’t our society discuss how they dress? This has nothing to do with Islam at all – the veil actually came out of the desert when there were sandstorms and people had to cover their faces. It is ridiculous that it has now come to this."
Mr Straw, whose constituency in Blackburn has an Asian population of 30,000, said the increasing trend towards covering the face was "bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult".
Asked if he would rather the veils be discarded completely, he said: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but, with all the caveats, yes, I would rather."
Conservative policy director Oliver Letwin said it would be a "dangerous doctrine" to start telling people how to dress, while Liberal Democrat chairman Simon Hughes dubbed the remarks "insensitive and surprising".
Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury, said: "We shouldn’t shoot somebody for being honest. What we’ve got to understand is that this is a two-way street. We need to increase understanding."
But a spokesman for Lancashire Council of Mosques said: "We fully support the right of Muslim women to choose to follow this precept of their faith in adopting the full veil, which causes no harm to anyone. It is their human right to do so. Many of these women find Mr Straw’s comments offensive."
Zareen Roohi Ahmed, of the British Muslim Forum, added: "My worry is that if someone in Jack Straw’s position can get away with asking Muslim women to remove their veils, what is to stop employers, bus drivers or shopkeepers from applying the same kind of pressure?"
On the streets of Blackburn, the community was divided over Mr Straw’s comments.
Bank worker Irfan Asghar, 23, said he was surprised by the remarks, adding: "In Britain, whatever faith you are you should be able to follow it in whatever way you want."
Student Safiya Mohammed, 18, who was wearing a veil and head-dress bearing the Calvin Klein logo, said: "He should respect other people’s beliefs, values and culture. I don’t believe it draws attention to us, that’s the reason why we wear the veil. We are keeping our beauty to ourselves, so what does it matter?"
Planner Anthony Conlon, 38, said: "I don’t think he was out of order. It’s like talking to someone with a motorbike helmet on – you can’t gauge their reaction.
"There will be a big backlash to this, because a large number of Asians vote for him." Retired couple Terry and Mary Alty also agree with the politician’s point of view. Mary said: "I think it was right. When you are speaking to someone you really need to see their reaction."
Husband Terry added: "If you come to a country then you abide by the rules. I do worry that we are moving too far to becoming a non-English country but I would not want to be seen as a racist."
Mr Straw’s Labour colleagues, including the party chairwoman Hazel Blears, backed Mr Straw, saying his request to constituents was "perfectly proper".
Downing Street refused to reveal Mr Blair’s personal views.
A spokeswoman said: "The Prime Minister believes that it’s right that people should be able to have a discussion and express their personal views on issues such as this."