'Jack Straw sparks veil row" must count as one of more improbable headlines of the year. But this almost understates the firestorm unleashed by Mr Straw's remarks in his local newspaper. The often tongue-tied former foreign secretary, now low-key leader of the House of Commons, suggested that community relations could be improved if Muslim women removed their veils. He also disclosed that he asks women who come to his constituency "surgery" fully veiled to uncover, so that he can talk to them "face to face".
The fury in some Muslim quarters can be understood. By what right does Mr Straw question the dress of his female constituents? And what of the timing? Was he perhaps seeking national attention to boost a bid for Labour's deputy leadership? His statement that not one woman had refused his request also deserves a measure of scepticism. As supplicants, the women had every incentive to comply. In Mr Straw's defence, though, he made his point with a light and essentially personal touch, and his conclusion was tentative: "My concerns could be misplaced, but I think there is an issue here."
And there clearly is an issue, though it is important to be clear what it is. It is not the wearing of the headscarf, with which many Muslim women choose to cover their hair. Unlike in France, where the wearing of headscarves at school became a highly contentious political issue, the attitude to headscarves in Britain has been wisely liberal, which has kept the subject largely out of the political domain. Schools in this country have, sensibly, adapted their uniforms to accommodate Muslim concerns, drawing the line only at the full-length robe - a line which was upheld by the courts.
The veil that Mr Straw finds "such a visible statement of separation and difference" is the full veil that leaves only the woman's eyes uncovered. And we agree that this is far more problematic for the Western liberal conscience. On the one hand, any adult should be free to choose how to dress, within the limits of decency. On the other, to cover the face seems to convey messages that challenge some of our most cherished values.
A person's face is his or her identity. It is not only Mr Straw who finds it unnerving to meet someone whose face he cannot see. And this is not primarily because a person without a face can seem threatening - we are not talking masked robbers or "hoodies" here. It is because a woman without a face looks, to Western eyes, less of a person. She seems to resemble an anonymous object. The veil thus comes to symbolise the subordinate position of women in so many Muslim societies. Such patriarchal arrangements seem not only alien, but inhumane. The notion of women as second-class citizens is something we long ago rejected for ourselves.
It is easy, if obvious, to say that no woman in this country should be forced to cover her face. The converse is also true: a woman who freely chooses to wear a full veil should have the right to do so without attracting scorn or opprobrium. But the burden of tradition, culture and family often weighs so heavy that it can be hard to discern where convention ends and genuine free will begins. There are times, too, when identity is crucial: at passport control, at a civil marriage ceremony, before a driving test or professional exam, which raise issues over whether a woman must be prepared to show her face. There is room for sensitivity here, but not for timidity.
Cultural diversity is respected to a commendable degree in Britain, where "live and let live" is, and should be, the order of the day. But there is ground that cannot be conceded. In Britain women and men are equal - in their rights and their responsibilities - before the law. Mr Straw's precise concerns about the effect of the veil on community relations may indeed be misplaced. But there can be no doubt that there is, as he said, an issue here.Reuse content