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The United Kingdom debate over veils began in October 2006 when the MP and government minister Jack Straw wrote in his local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, that, while he did not want to be "prescriptive", he preferred talking to women who did not wear a niqab (face veil) as he could see their face, and asked women who were wearing such items to remove them when they spoke to him, making clear that they could decline his request and that a female member of staff was in the room.

Straw said he told the newspaper this information to open a debate on the subject, and not because of the upcoming deputy leader election in the Labour Party.[1] Straw was Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq War and since 1979 has been the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Blackburn, where at least one quarter of the population are Muslim. Straw later stated that he would like to see the veil "abolished" altogether, adding that he was worried about "implications of separateness".[1]

Straw's views were met with a mixed response, with some agreeing to the idea of a debate, some arguing that Muslim women should not wear veils in the United Kingdom, and some, such as the newspaper the Daily Express, calling for the veil to be banned. Others were opposed to Straw's intervention, and some accused him of encouraging prejudice.


Background to the debate: the face veil in Islam

A niqab-wearing woman in Yemen

One of the tenets of Islam is a requirement for modesty in both men and women. This concept is known in Arabic as hijab, which refers to far more than Islam and clothing. The word "hijab" has entered English and other European languages with a somewhat different meaning, referring either to sartorial hijab, or to one article thereof, namely the headscarf worn by many Muslim women.

Muslims follow various schools of thought (madhhabs) which have differences of opinions on Islamic law (sharia). Women who wear a face-veil tend to observe the hadiths (sayings of Muhammad) instructing women to cover all that is not essential, which some interpret as everything except the eyes and hands. This belief is a minority position. Most Muslims believe women should allow their faces to be visible, but should cover the hair (and, in many cultures, the throat as well). An even smaller minority wear all-covering garments such as the burqa. Wearing the niqab is mandatory for women in Saudi Arabia at all times while in public, except during the Hajj (annual pilgrimage). These rulings (fatwa) are based on the understandings of modesty and the public display of the body (awrah).

Expressions of opposition to the wearing of the niqab

Following Jack Straw's opening of the debate, the following people went on the record with their comments:

  • Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed with this approach, adding that he thought it would be "better for Britain" if fewer Muslim women wore the veil, and that he supports "what Jack Straw has said".[3]
  • Labour MP Nigel Griffiths, then Deputy Leader of the Commons, said "it's all very well for Muslim women to say that they feel comfortable wearing the veil but ... the veil does not make other people feel comfortable. In that way it could be said that they are being selfish."[4]
  • Labour MP Phil Woolas, who had a position in charge of race relations policy, said that Muslim women wearing the veil are "frightening and intimidating" and congratulated Straw for starting the debate.[5]
  • Labour MP Harriet Harman said she wanted to see the veil abolished, saying "The veil is an obstacle to women's participation, on equal terms, in society."
  • Bill Deedes, a former Conservative Party politician, added his weight to the debate in an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph, saying that Islam "is the only faith on Earth that persuades its followers to seek political power and impose a law — sharia — which shapes everyone's style of life", and that Islam "forbids" Muslims from conforming with British society.[7]
  • Simon Jenkins wrote a piece for The Sunday Times asking why Muslim women who wore the veil wanted to live in the UK; however, he cast doubt on the effectiveness of Straw's statements.[8]
  • Allison Pearson wrote in the Daily Mail that women wearing the niqab, or as she phrased it "nose-bags over their faces" , "have no place on British streets". She added "It's not a nice sensation – to feel judged for wearing your own clothes in your own country."
  • Trevor Kavanagh wrote in The Sun that Muslim women were wearing the niqab "to provoke us", while the following day Sun columnist Jon Gaunt wrote "enough is enough, forget lifting veils, Labour should remove the kid gloves and treat Muslims the same as every other British citizen. And it's not just me saying this. Even the Church of England, in a leaked report, is saying the Government has shown preference to Muslims and has contributed to the divisions in modern Britain."

Expressions of opposition to the raising of the issue as a public debate

  • Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, said that he was "amazed by his [Straw's] insensitivity", adding that "bearing in mind this person [the constituent] has come to you to ask for something, the power imbalance in that relationship means it’s completely unacceptable behaviour on Jack Straw’s part. That a powerful man can say to a completely powerless woman, I think you should take your veil off, I think is completely and utterly wrong and insensitive."
  • The Respect party urged Straw to resign. "Who does Jack Straw think he is to tell his female constituents that he would prefer they disrobe before they meet him," George Galloway said in a press release. "For that is what this amounts to. It is a male politician telling women to wear less."[10]
  • The Socialist Workers Party said that Straw's words allowed for an "open season for all who want to blame Muslims for the problems in Britain and to blame the victims of racism for the racism in society".[11]
  • Jon Cruddas, a Labour MP and another candidate for the post of Deputy Leader, suggested that ministers were playing "fast and loose" with religious tensions adding, "The solution does not lie in an ever more muscular bidding war among politicians to demonstrate who can be tougher on migrants, asylum-seekers and minorities. Nor is it in using racial or religious symbols to create controversy. That only makes the situation worse. It is not the role of politicians to play fast and loose with symbols of difference, especially when they drive the political centre of gravity to the right as a consequence."
  • Writing in The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting claimed that Straw's "singling out" of Muslim women actually intensifies the division that Straw says he wants to remove.[12]
  • Rabbi Alex Chapper of the Ilford Federation Synagogue wrote that "I feel his comments were totally unacceptable and display, at best, insensitivity to, and at worst, an ignorance of the laws, customs and practices of Islam. It is nonsense to suggest that, 'women who wore veils made community relations more difficult', rather it is remarks such as these that create divisions and intolerance in Britain," adding "if you're going to single out for condemnation, or even ban, one style of dress where do you draw the line? Could the kipah or sheitel be next, are they divisive in Mr Straw's eye?."

Expressions of opposition to the tone of the debate

  • John Denham MP said that the debate was "flawed" as the government appeared to be "grandstanding" for the sake of the majority rather than actually listening to the Muslim minority.[13]
  • Trevor Phillips, further to his first comments, later said that he feared that the debate "could be the trigger for the grim spiral that produced riots in the north of England five years ago". He said that the debate "seems to have turned into something really quite ugly", adding, "we need to have this conversation but there are rules by which we have the conversation which don't involve this kind of targeting and frankly bullying."[15]
  • Writing in the Daily Mail, Peter Oborne said that the debate included "the nastiest and most irresponsible politics I have seen from a mainstream political party in my life, and we will all pay a horrible price for such cynical opportunism" as it will "encourage extremism, whether from white supremacist parties like the BNP or within Islam itself".[19]

Accusations of Islamophobia

  • Nazir Ahmed, Baron Ahmed, the first Muslim peer in the House of Lords, accused the Government of sustaining "a constant theme of demonising" the Muslim community. Lord Ahmed told BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme that it had become fashionable amongst ministers to "have a go at the Muslims".[20]
  • Pola Uddin, Baroness Uddin, the first female Muslim peer in the House of Lords, said that "we have attacked those who would be our greatest allies in meeting the current challenges of terrorism and radicalisation." She warned that the row over veils had caused "havoc" in the Muslim community and created "a feeling of vulnerability and demonisation of Muslim women".[21]
  • John McDonnell, a Labour MP, wrote in his blog that "if anyone doubted that Islamophobia existed in our country they should be in no doubt after reading and listening to the torrent of bigotry and prejudice pouring out of some of our national press and from our main media outlets over the last 48 hours".
  • The playwright David Edgar wrote in The Guardian that he was "shocked" at the levels of anti-Islamic prejudices that came to the fore during the debate, writing "the furor over the right to wear the veil has exposed the double standards of the liberal anti-Islam agenda".[24]
  • After Salman Rushdie gave his opinion that the veil "[1] sucks", the former leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, Iqbal Sacranie, said "Islamophobes are currently doing all they can to attack Islam and it doesn't surprise me he is now jumping on the bandwagon." [3]

Violent attacks

Muslim groups blamed Straw's comments in part for an arson attack on an Islamic centre in the Scottish town of Falkirk and an attack on a woman wearing a niqab.[25][26][27]

Media spoof

The Daily Star was prevented from publishing a mock-up page of what it would look like if it was run by Muslims. The mock-up "Daily Fatwa", which promised a "Page 3 Burkha Babes Special" and competitions to "Burn a Flag and Win a Corsa" and "Win hooks just like Hamza's", was prepared to run as page 6 in that day's edition till members of the National Union of Journalists refused to co-operate on the grounds that it was deliberately offensive to Muslims.[28] Zoo Magazine, one of the classic "lads' mags", instead announced plans to publish a double-page spread making fun of Muslim law. (Ben Knowles is the deputy editor of the Star, and former editor of Zoo.) The section will be labelled "Your all-new veil-friendly Zoo!", while other headlines include "Public stonings!", "Beheadings!" and "Absolutely nobody having any fun whatsoever". The magazine, which regularly features naked women will, on these pages, instead feature a woman in a burqa, with the heading "A girl! As you've never seen her before!". [29]

Other Reactions

  • Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said "I think it's right for him to say 'would you mind not making me feel uncomfortable' in this case, as long as it is clearly understood the answer to that can be 'no'."[30]

Opinion polling

Tabloid newspaper the Daily Express announced that 98% of its readers who had taken part in a phone-in poll on the subject supported a ban on the veil.[31]

Ipsos MORI conducted a more thorough opinion poll on 11 October 2006 [32]. This found that 51% of the public agreed (saying they "strongly agree" or "tend to agree") that Straw was right to raise the issue, with 31% saying he was wrong. It also found 61% agreed with the statement: "By wearing a veil Muslim women are segregating themselves". However, 51% of the public thought that Straw's comments would damage race relations, and 77% agreed that "Muslim women should have the right to wear the veil".

Foreign commentary on the UK debate

Speaking of the British debate, Fox News correspondent John Gibson said the veil "is clearly a sign of separation, clearly a sign of wanting to avoid assimilating in the western culture, whether it's here or Britain or Italy. And it is clearly a sign of a subculture that wants to establish its own rules separate and apart. Speaking as an American: no Sharia law, no veils. If you're here, be American,"[33] a remark which prompted the Council on American-Islamic Relations to encourage people to complain about Gibson's remarks.[34]

Further cases

The veil in schools

The debate was compounded when Aishah Azmi was sacked from a Church of England school after refusing to remove her niqab in front of men. She had been recently hired and had not mentioned this condition at her job interview, at which she had not worn a niqab. She took her case to an employment tribunal, which saw, unusually, many British politicians commenting on it before it was heard. They included the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who said he supported the school's actions, and race relations minister Phil Woolas, who said she should be "sacked". Azmi lost her case for unfair dismissal but intends on appealing the decision to a higher court.

Daily Express cover for 21 October 2006.

On 20 March 2007 new guidance was given to schools in England that they will be able to ban pupils from wearing full-face veils on security, safety or learning grounds. Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said successive ministers had failed to give proper guidance about schools' obligations regarding religious dress and "to now proceed to issue guidance against Muslim communities is simply shocking".[35]

CCTV image of one of the male perpetrators of the 21 July 2005 London bombings disguised in a burqa.

The veil in crime

Veils have been accused of hindering the fight against crime:

  • Mustaf Jama, wanted for the murder of policewoman Sharon Beshenivsky, is believed to have dressed in a niqab in order to flee Britain, though the Home Office said the claim was unlikely to be true as women can be asked to lift veils in identity checks [2].
  • A man wanted on terrorism charges is believed to have dressed in a burqa, which covers the body and face entirely, in order to escape the police [3].

For historical context, see the case of the Victorian travel writer Lady Florence Dixie, who claimed she was the victim of an assassination attempt near her home in England by foreign male terrorists dressed as veiled women.

The veil and identification at national borders

Conservative politician Douglas Hogg asked minister Liam Byrne what instructions had been given to officers at borders in dealing with people wearing veils or other garments obscuring their identity. Byrne stated that in accordance with the Immigration Act 1971 all persons arriving in the United Kingdom must satisfy an immigration officer as to their nationality and identity. Where there are sensitive or cultural reasons why it is not possible for a person to remove a veil or other garment at the immigration control, they will be taken to a private area where a female officer will ask them to lift their veil so that their identity can be verified. Most people are usually content to do this but there are powers to refuse entry to persons who cannot be satisfactorily identified.[37]

The veil in court

In November 2006, The Times reported that a judge adjourned a court case and took advice after lawyer Shabnam Mughal twice declined to remove her niqab. Judge George Glossop requested that she do so as he was struggling to hear her during the hearing.[38]

See also


  1. ^ a b 'Remove full veils' urges Straw - BBC News. 6 October 2006
  2. ^ Blair's concerns over face veils BBC News Online. 17 October 2006
  3. ^ a b Brown breaks ranks to back Straw over lifting Muslim veils - 11 October 2006
  4. ^ It's selfish to wear the veil, says Straw aide - Evening Standard. 07 October 2006
  5. ^ 'Muslim women who wear the veil can be frightening & intimidating' - Sunday Mirror. 08 October 2006
  6. ^ Tories accuse Muslims of 'creating apartheid by shutting themselves off' - The Daily Telegraph. 15 October 2006
  7. ^ Muslims can never conform to 'our' ways - The Daily Telegraph. 20 October 2006
  8. ^ Political fancy footwork under Straws veil of moderation - Simon Jenkins at The Sunday Times. October 2006
  9. ^ The Jewish Chronicle, 14 October 2006 edition. Not available online, quote in context: "Our time is almost up, but BHL becomes the most animated I have seen him when I ask him about Jack Straw's intervention on Muslim women and the veil. ‘Jack Straw’, he says, leaning close to me, ‘made a great point. He did not say that he was against the veil. He said it is much easier, much more comfortable, respectful, to speak with a woman with a naked face. And without knowing, he quoted Levinas, who is the philosopher of the face. Levinas says that [having seen] the naked face of your interlocutor, you cannot kill him or her, you cannot rape him, you cannot violate him. So when the Muslims say that the veil is to protect women, it is the contrary. The veil is an invitation to rape’"
  10. ^ Jack Straw: resign now or be driven out at the election - RESPECT The Unity Coalition Press release. 05 October 2006
  11. ^ Jack Straw's veil comments threaten to inflame racism - Socialist Worker. 07 October 2006.
  12. ^ Jack Straw has unleashed a storm of prejudice and intensified division - Madeleine Bunting writing for The Guardian. 09 October 2006
  13. ^ How not to have a debate - John Yorke Denham writing for The Guardian. 9 October 2006.
  14. ^ Veil Debate | Here and There by Jess McConnell, Islam Editor, Edinburgh Middle East Report Online. Winter 2006.
  15. ^ Warning over UK race riot danger - BBC News. 22 October 2006
  16. ^ Cable Street and the Nikab - By George Galloway on behalf of the Respect party.
  17. ^ Muslims are the new Jews - India Knight for The Sunday Times. 15 October 2006
  18. ^ Same methods used to attack Muslims today as used against Jews - Ken Livingstone - Mayor of London Press Release. 08 October 2006
  19. ^ Peter Oborne Column - Daily Mail. 21 October 2006
  20. ^ Labour is demonising Muslims - The 1990 Trust. 16 October 2006
  21. ^ Labour accused of aiding extremists by its focus on Muslim issues - The Independent. October, 2006
  22. ^ Open Letter against Islamophobia - Stop the War Coalition. PDF format.
  23. ^ BMI calls national rally to defend religious freedom and demand an end to attacks on Muslims - British Muslim Initiative Press Release. 18 October 2006
  24. ^ Sorry, but we can't just pick and choose what to tolerate - David Edgar. 11 October 2006.
  25. ^ Islamic Centre gutted by fire - Falkirk Herald. 06 October 2006
  26. ^ Straw words 'sparked veil attack' - BBC News. 07 October 2006
  27. ^ Attacks on Muslims rise after veils row - The Independent. 21 October 2006
  28. ^ Newsroom revolt forces 'Star' to drop its 'Daily Fatwa' spoof - The Independent. 19 October 2006
  29. ^ Zoo stirs up trouble as it follows Star with 'Muslim' spread - Brand Republic. 23 October 2006
  30. ^ Race equality head backs Straw on wearing of veil - The Independent. 21 October 2006.
  31. ^
  32. ^ Muslim Women Wearing Veils, Ipsos MORI. The sample size was 1,023.
  33. ^ Muslim Veil Shouldn't Be Worn in West - Fox News. 18 October 2006
  34. ^ Incitement: 'No veils. If you're here, be American' - Council on American-Islamic Relations Press release. 19 October 2006
  35. ^ BBC News - 'Schools allowed to ban face veils'
  36. ^
  37. ^ Immigration staff can ask Muslim women to remove veils - 26 October 2006
  38. ^ Britain: Lawyer Refuses to Remove Veil in Court - New York Times

External links

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