Last summer, I had lunch with some Lebanese friends, one of whom owns a hotel in Lebanon. When a Saudi prince turned up with his entourage, including his wife in a full-length black veil, my friend took him to one side and politely explained that the hotel does not allow covered women, on the grounds that they are offensive to female guests who wear swimsuits and bikinis. The prince promptly summoned his wife and sent her to the hotel shop, where she bought a string bikini and wore it for the duration of the holiday. (It later transpired that she wasn't his wife, but that's another story.)
The reason I Iike this anecdote is that, unlike Jack Straw's muddled interventions last week, it tells the truth about how many of us feel about the veil in all its forms: the hijab, niqab, jilbab, chador and burqa. I can't think of a more dramatic visual symbol of oppression, the inescapable fact being that the vast majority of women who cover their hair, faces and bodies do so because they have no choice. Women don't wear the burqa in Afghanistan because they like it; they wear it because they are afraid of being killed if they don't. Women haven't suddenly gone back to wearing the veil in Iraq because they're pious; they do it because women who are courageous enough to refuse, including a well-known TV presenter, have been murdered by Islamic extremists.
Intimidation and family pressure play a role in the French banlieue where the Ni Putes Ni Soumises movement (literal translation: Neither whores nor submissive) was set up by Muslim women to oppose both racism in the French state and the strict Islamic identity imposed on them by fathers, uncles and brothers.
Muslim women in this country may be telling the truth when they say they are covering their hair and faces out of choice, but that doesn't mean they haven't been influenced by relatives and male clerics. Just how prescriptive some British Muslim men are on this subject was revealed in a startling exchange on last week's Moral Maze on Radio 4, when Dr Muhammad Mukadam, chairman of the Association of Muslim Schools and principal of the Leicester Islamic Academy, which is due to receive state funds next year, confirmed that even non-Muslim girls at his school would be expected to cover themselves. "We have a school uniform and that means wearing the hijab and the jilbab," he said.
On another Radio 4 programme, The World Tonight, a young Muslim woman admitted that Muslim women cover their faces as a "barrier" between men and women. To that extent, Mr Straw has a point when he says the niqab gets in the way of face-to-face contact, as well as having implications for community relations. Where he is wrong is in failing to frame the question of covered women as a human rights issue, just as he signally failed to defend the principle of free expression during the row over the Danish cartoons in February. It seems bizarre to ask individual Muslim women to uncover their faces in order to talk to a white, middle-aged man, rather than focusing on the wider meaning and effect of the niqab and the burqa.
Last week, the bodies of a young Asian woman and her two infant sons, aged two and one, were found in a flat in the Handsworth area of Birmingham. All three had died by hanging, and the police say they are not looking for anyone else in connection with the tragedy. Neighbours said that the mother was unable to speak English and usually wore traditional Islamic dress, including a burqa - two factors that they felt contributed to her social isolation.
The veil in its various forms signals that women have conditional access to public space, allowed to participate in the world outside the home only if they follow certain rules. Islam isn't alone in this: for centuries, Christianity laid down similar conditions but the Enlightenment, of which feminism is an integral part, successfully challenged such rigid divisions between the sexes. The problem is that the most high-profile form of Islam in this country wants to reinstate those divisions; when women cover themselves, they are demonstrating their acceptance of an ideology that gives them fewer rights than men and an inferior place in society. If you read it literally, which not all Muslims do, the Koran is explicit on this point: "Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient." If they are not, the same passage continues, "send them to beds apart and beat them".
There is also abundant evidence, from the morbid pronouncements of Muslim clerics, that the stricter forms of Islam have major problems with sexuality. Again, it isn't the only religion to do so, but discussions on Islamic websites, about whether the death penalty is appropriate for homosexuals and women who commit adultery, exhibit high degrees of sexual fear and disgust. Far from being a protection for women - it hasn't prevented alarming levels of rape in Afghanistan and Iraq - the veil protects men from casual arousal. It also establishes women as the sexual property of individual men - fathers, husbands and sons - who are the only people allowed to see them uncovered.
In that sense Mr Straw's interventions, while useful in kicking off an overlong debate, do not go nearly far enough. The practice of covering women is a human rights issue in two senses, not just as a symbol of inequality, but because accusations of racism, cultural insensitivity and Islamophobia are commonly used to silence its critics. But if I loathe the niqab and the burqa when I see women wearing them in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be hypocritical to pretend I don't find them equally offensive on my local high street.
'I shouldn't be dictated to'
Sarah Hussain, 19, a student from Acton, West London, wears a full veil, or niqab, with only the eyes visible. She is very angry at Jack Straw's comments: "It was outrageous for him to say something like that against a specific group. It was rude and deliberate. He is feeling threatened, the next year will be uncertain for him and so he has decided to pick on the nearest minority to make him look strong. It is a very sensitive issue right now and for him to stand up and say those kind of things will only encourage the negative feeling of Muslims which is already so prominent. The last two years have been a nightmare. I have had abuse thrown at me so many times. When I was growing up I didn't wear a veil and then I made a spiritual decision to wear one - I have experienced people's reaction to me when I was wearing the veil and when I wasn't, so I know this abuse is because I wear a veil. It is usually from white men in groups and it is when I am alone or with my family. They never say anything when my husband is there. I know it would be easier for me if I didn't wear my veil, but I shouldn't be dictated to as to who I am. I am not doing anything wrong, I am interacting with society and studying society."
'There is fear and suspicion'
Catherine Hossain, 29, is a nursery teacher and spokesperson for Ilford Muslim Public Affairs Committee. She wears the hijab, or headscarf. She describes Jack Straw's comments as very concerning. "He is creating a storm in a tea cup by saying some very 'headline-grabbing' things. I don't think it is far from the truth to say that it is for his own gain - to become deputy prime minister. His comments are distracting attention from the issue in Blackburn. It really is a segregated area: when you go into the town centre there are literally no mixed groups. There is fear and suspicion on both sides. Talking about women taking off their veils is not going to help. It suggests that men are more integrated than women when there is no evidence for this. One good thing, though, is that Muslim women are now being listened to."
'Jack Straw is a bully'
Arzu Nerali, 35, married with four children and living in Wembley, heads the Islamic Human Rights Commission research department and is co-author of a recent study into the Muslim community's reaction to veils and headscarves - and wears the hijab herself.
She says Mr Straw's call yesterday for completely discarding the veil is "disturbing, to put it mildly".
She adds: "Mr Straw's abuse of power should not dictate to these women what they should wear. These women go to his surgery and are vulnerable and I suspect that they remove their veil because they feel they have to - he is a powerful person. There is a perception that Muslim woman are pushed around by Muslim men, but what Jack Straw is doing is no better than that. He is a bully. It has certainly got people talking."
Covered up: How the veil crosses the religious spectrum
The Koran, the Torah and the New Testament all encourage women to preserve their modesty.
What The Koran says: 24:31 (English translation) "Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their scarf to cover their bosom."
What it means: Muslim women must dress modestly. The ambiguity of the phrase "what is apparent of it" has led to disputes between Muslim scholars about how much a woman needs to cover up. Some argue they should cover everything while others contend this it is not necessary. The decision is left up to each woman - some do not cover up at all while others wear a burqa as an expression of their faith and Islamic identity.
What The New Testament says: Like Judaism, there is no specific command to cover the head, but in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 11, verse 6), St Paul says: "For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered."
What it means: The early Christians believed women had an obligation to dress modestly and that women should cover their heads as a sign of obedience to God. Nowadays only nuns routinely cover their hair, and in the Catholic church the mantilla, as recently worn by Cherie Blair, has historical religious significance.
What the torah says: There is no scripture forbidding women from showing their hair but Numbers, chapter 5, verse 18 says: "And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and uncover the woman's head." This is widely interpreted to mean that women should cover their hair.
What it means: Unmarried women can show their hair freely. Married, widowed and divorced women should cover their hair to preserve their modesty.This obligation has evolved into the practice among Orthodox women of covering their heads with a wig, or sheitl.
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