The hoo-hah caused by Jack Straw’s remarks about Muslim women wearing veils is perhaps the biggest storm ever to rage inside a tea cup.
The Leader of the House of Commons is an MP for Blackburn, where the Muslim population is estimated to be somewhere between 25 and 30 per cent. Writing in a local newspaper, he said that he now asks veiled women to show their faces when meeting them in person. Unsurprisingly, he finds it easier to communicate with a fellow human being if he can see their face. On the occasions when he has asked for this, the constituents have obliged. That’s it. That’s the story.
Judging by the reaction in some quarters, and the shameful hysteria being whipped up by the media, you’d think that he goes around Blackburn ripping the veils from women’s heads then setting fire to the cloth. Take this blustering headline from The Independent, for example: Straw fans flames by insisting he wants women to stop wearing veils altogether. From where have they got the word ‘insisting’? I’ve read what Jack Straw actually wrote in the Lancashire Telegraph and he doesn’t ‘insist’ on anything at all. He respectfully asks if they would mind removing their veil during what is meant to be a face to face conversation. So far, all have done so. But it’s their choice whether to do it or not, just as much as it is their choice (at least, it should be) to wear it in the first place. He is not refusing to speak to women who wear veils, nor is he telling anyone how they should dress, which some people have accused him of.
Asked on Radio 4’s Today programme whether he would prefer to see veils discarded completely, Jack Straw said: “Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”
That’s one of the great things about this country: Muslim women can choose what clothing they wear, and everyone else is free to have their opinion on it. That is Jack Straw’s opinion. I happen to share his view. I would go further and argue that a cultural requirement that all women cover themselves from head to toe amounts to subjugation (although whether or not the Koran explicitly requires that women wear these garments is a matter of conjecture). I would rather people did not dress this way but, as long as they choose to do so by their own free will (and I would be interested to know how many Muslim women dress this way out of community pressure rather than personal religious conviction) I don’t particularly care one way or the other. For the record, I would also prefer it if people didn’t wear gold jewellery, tracksuit bottoms with Reebok trainers, Chelsea shirts, hooded tops or baseball caps.
But that’s just my opinion.