Straw fans flames by insisting he wants women to stop wearing veils altogether

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Indy Politics

Jack Straw has inflamed the controversy over Muslim women wearing veils by saying that he would prefer them to stop wearing the garments altogether. The former Foreign Secretary provoked widespread anger, both among Muslim groups and in his Blackburn constituency, when he disclosed that he asked female constituents to uncover their faces in meetings.

Undaunted by a wave of criticism, including condemnation from the one of the Church of England's most senior bishops, Mr Straw waded further into the row yesterday. 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."

The Leader of the Commons told Radio 4's Today programme: "You cannot force people where they live, that's a matter of choice and economics, but you can be concerned about the implications of separateness."

Downing Street yesterday defended his right to intervene in such a sensitive issue, although it stressed he was not speaking for the Government on the subject.

He has dismissed suggestions he was speaking out in advance of a possible bid for Labour's deputy leadership, but his comments will raise his public profile. He has not yet announced his candidacy.

Mr Straw, who has been the MP for Blackburn for 27 years, first wrote of his worries about veils in a regular column for the Lancashire Telegraph.

He recalled a meeting with a veiled constituent who told him how nice it was to meet him "face to face". He described how he felt " uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face to face' who I could not see" and said the garment could make it harder to bring communities together.

He added yesterday: "Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers - people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able pass the time of day. That's made more difficult if people are wearing a veil." He said he hoped there could be a "mature debate" about the issue and said that he had a " profound commitment to equal rights for Muslim communities".

But Zareen Roohi Ahmed, chief executive of the British Muslim Forum, said Mr Straw was attacking a "fundamental freedom of choice to practice their religion as they wish".

She said: "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 shop keepers from applying the same kind of pressure?"

Catherine Hossain, from the campaigning organisation Muslim Public Affairs Committee, said Mr Straw was trivialising the "serious problem of segregation".

She said: "This headline-grabbing remark about removing the veil, that's not going to solve the problem."

But others prominent Muslims backed his call for a discussion, with Labour peer Baroness Uddin saying: "I think it's about human rights on both sides - Jack's right to say and the women's right to wear."

In a GMTV interview to be broadcast tomorrow, the Rt Rev Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, also opposed Mr Straw's stance.

"If for some Muslim women that's like saying 'I want you to take your blouse off' or something, then if they feel deeply embarrassed ... the last thing I want to do is embarrass them in that way," he said.

Oliver Letwin, the Tory policy director, said it was a "dangerous doctrine" to start telling people how to dress, while Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat president, called the remarks "insensitive and surprising". George Galloway, the leader of the Respect Party, called on Mr Straw to resign as he was effectively asking women "to wear less".

Mr Galloway denounced "the despicable competition between the Tory and New Labour front benches over who can grab the headlines as the hammer of the Muslims".

But Hazel Blears, the Labour Party chair, said her cabinet colleague's request to constituents was "perfectly proper".

He also won backing from Jemima Khan, who has become a campaigner for women after she converted to Islam.

She said: "My belief also happens to be that 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, while the sight of a woman in a veil may be shocking to the average Westerner, there are many Muslim women in this country who will argue that the image of a skeletal 14-year-old on a catwalk is equally disturbing and exploitative."

Shahid Malik, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, said traditional dress was a major issue in his West Yorkshire constituency.

"We shouldn't shoot somebody for being honest. What we've got to understand is this is a two-way street - we need to increase understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims."

A Muslim woman waiting for a bus in Toxteth, Liverpool, had her veil pulled off yesterday by a man who also racially abused her. Police said the victim, 49, was "extremely shocked".

'I wonder what he wanted to achieve by saying this'

Elizabeth Lymer, NIQAB WEARER

"These expressions are coming from refusing to understand why someone would wear a niqab. This comment is part of the trend towards creating division between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is not an appropriate comment in a democracy where we supposedly have the freedom to choose what we wear and express ourselves."

Angela Squires, NON-MUSLIM

"What Jack Straw said was insulting for women who wear the veil because they have moral issues about covering their faces. His words could create a moral dilemma for them. Unfortunately, there is a backlash against Islam at the moment, which is the same as classing all white people as bigots. There's a great deal of generalisations going on."

Mazia Yassim, NON-VEILED MUSLIM

"Why can't people have the freedom of expression to wear what we like? I know fellow lecturers who wear a veil and are able to communicate very well to students. It is perhaps similar to saying that people who wear sunglasses are divisive for society because you have difficulty reading their facial expressions too."

Angela Docherty, NON-MUSLIM

"I don't think the veil being divisive or not is the point. People's religions should be respected and the way to do that is to gain an understanding of them, so I think it's important for us to understand why certain Muslim women wear the veil. Westerners should consider whether there are things about our dress and attitudes that could be seen as divisive.''

Huma Syed, NON-VEILED MUSLIM

"I don't think what he said is true and it makes me wonder what he was trying to achieve by making such statements. Our society is so diverse that I would not expect anyone to dress like me. Just as it is wrong to judge someone wearing a hoodie as a criminal, it is entirely misconceived to say someone wearing the veil is not integrating, or hampering integration."

Cassie Bradley, NIQAB WEARER

"If people want it to become an issue, it will become an issue. I think what Jack Straw said was not right. Muslim women who wear the full veil are regularly victimised. The media seems to be slandering Islam as a whole, and I think this is part of having a stab at Muslims. If it continues, which is inevitable, people will come to hate Islam."

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