It’s just as well Condoleeza Rice didn’t wear a veil otherwise Jack Straw would have had a serious problem discussing important international affairs with her.
A silly and absurd statement? Absolutely, and that’s what I thought when I read Jack Straw’s extraordinary comments regarding the Muslim veil.
In Blackburn at the last general election, most of the Muslim vote was conjoined at the ballot box with Jack Straw who was seen as the friend of Muslims, and as someone who understood their religious sensitivities. For this reason alone when I read Straw’s comments I was perplexed to say the least.
Straw believes that wearing the full veil is bound to make better, positive relations between communities more difficult, because he sees the veil as a symbol of segregation. Not only is this a dangerous assertion especially in the current climate but is also inconsistent with the liberty and freedom Jack Straw sought to impose on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan as Foreign Secretary.
In a free society we cannot dictate what people choose to wear except in selective and controlled environments such as schools, hospitals and the workplace. Outside of the controlled environment, everyone is free to dress as they please. There is no universal dress code for being British; equally there is no dress code which symbolises anti-Britishness – yet that is what Jack Straw seems to suggest. He feels that if a Muslim woman chooses to wear a veil which also covers her face, she is choosing not to integrate into society. He completely misses the point. What Straw fails to understand is that a Muslim woman covering her face will do so in front of all men except her immediate family, regardless of whether they are Muslims, not as a sign of segregation but out of modesty – that is her prerogative and something she chooses to do.
Secondly, no matter how detrimental it maybe, in a free society we cannot force anyone to ‘integrate’ if they refuse to do so. This is a problem which is vexing all political parties who are desperately seeking satisfactory solutions but for which there is no quick fix.
There are as many non-Muslims who refuse to integrate with Muslims as there are Muslims who refuse to integrate with non-Muslims. I see this on a daily basis in my ward. The challenge in a free society is to build better relations between different groups to ensure future generations as well as existing ones are more accepting of each other and are prepared to live in a friendly and cordial environment – it is not to dictate dress codes or allow pre-existing prejudices to be casually aired especially by those who hold power.
What is most disturbing is Straw’s intransigence in that he asks for a Muslim woman to show her face if she is going to meet him, and if he is to do his duties as her MP. If as an elected councillor I refused to deal with a person who wore a cross, or a skull cap, was wearing a turban or had a Rastafarian hairstyle would I be encouraging debate on integration or displaying my irrational prejudices and abusing the power granted by the electorate?