The Daily Mail has been running a series of extracts from the political memoirs of MP for Blackburn and Darwen and former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. In the final extract ahead of the book’s release tomorrow, Straw recounts his decision to publicly raise the issue of face veiling in 2006, when he described it as a mark of ‘separation and difference’, and the controversy that ensued.
Commenting on his appointment as Leader of the House of Commons in 2006, he writes:
“With more time on my hands in this new job, I reflected on some of the trickier issues I knew to be on people’s minds but which no one seemed to want to talk about. I decided to address the issue of the veil.
“I talked in private to my many Muslim friends about this, and in particular about the increasing use of the full veil by some women in town. It was only a small minority of women, I conceded, but enough for people to notice, and to worry about.
“I told them that I found it difﬁcult properly to relate to people whose faces I could not see. Nor could I quite understand why this practice was increasing, since I could find no clear instruction in the Koran for it.
“I raised the subject in a column I have in a local newspaper.
“The veil, I argued, was hindering better relations between the communities because it was such a visible statement of separation and difference.
In his article which he published in the Lancashire Telegraph in 2006, as well as expressing an opinion about the potentially divisive nature of face veiling, Straw argued his case for asking women to remove their veils in his surgery.
“My article provoked a massive reaction.
“It was clear that here was a subject people had been desperate to discuss openly. It was as though I’d unblocked a dam.
“My modest article generated great debate in Muslim countries. The Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo came out in my support, asserting that the full veil (the niqab) had never been obligatory.
“In this country, I spoke to a national group of Islamic scholars and established that the injunction to wear the veil was a much later interpretation of the message of the Koran by scholars of particular schools of thought, and had not come from the Prophet Muhammad.
“But when next I returned to Blackburn for my usual round of engagements, I got it in the neck. There were demonstrations by veiled women outside the advice centres, and delegations of veiled women inside.
“I spent days in meetings, in Blackburn and elsewhere, talking about what I had written in my original article. And what I had not written.
“The headline in the local paper had been Take Off Your Veils: but I had never proposed banning the veil, nor did I believe that it should be.
“Gradually the row died down, and many Asian women (and some Asian men) even thanked me for raising an issue which had previously been taboo.
“Some Asian women still wear the veil in Blackburn, including some who come to see me for advice. Some remove their veil; some don’t. But I’m glad that I raised the issue.
“What is the point of being in politics and not saying what you think about the difﬁcult issues, as well as the easy ones?”
Following Straw’s comments in 2006, the face veil has become an increasingly salient topic in Europe with France banning face veiling in public and British far-right parties (UKIP and the BNP) and some Tories coming out in support of ‘burqa bans’ in Britain.
At an election hustings organised by ENGAGE during the 2010 general election, Straw apologised for his earlier comments on the veil stating that, in hindsight, “if I had realised the scale of publicity that they received in October 2006, I wouldn’t have made them and I am sorry that it has caused problems and I offer that apology.” He added that he regretted his comments had been “taken round the world and taken out of context”.
Though Straw says in his memoirs that he is glad he raised the issue, his admission on the impact his comments has been acknowledged by others. For example, in 2009 prior to a much publicised edition of Newsnight in which the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin, was invited to appear, Guardian columnist Gary Younge argued that Griffin’s participation, and the BBC’s invitation, was the outcome of the ‘logical, lamentable path’ trodden by politicians since Straw ‘started a debate’ by asking Muslim women to remove their veils when attending his constituency surgeries.
The issue of face veiling has, since Straw’s comments mutated into something much bigger, visible not only in efforts to ban the practice in Europe, but also in the way in which veiled Muslim women have increasingly become the target of hostility and Islamophobia as the public discourse in the UK and Europe gravitates towards misrepresenting their personal choices and freedoms.
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