Ministers distance themselves from Straw veil comments

Senior cabinet ministers yesterday sought to distance themselves from Jack Straw’s claims that the veil worn by Muslim women was a “statement of separation”.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott and health secretary Patricia Hewitt said they would not ask women to remove the veil when speaking to them during constituency surgeries, as Mr Straw has taken to doing.

The former foreign secretary, now leader of the Commons, said he “felt uncomfortable about talking to someone face-to-face who I could not see”.

On Friday Downing Street distanced itself from Mr Straw’s comments, and yesterday Mr Prescott told BBC One’s Sunday AM: “If a woman wants to wear a veil, why shouldn’t she? It’s her choice.”
Ms Hewitt admitted she had seen the full veil as a “symbol of women’s oppression” in the past, but said a meeting with a young woman in her Leicester constituency had changed her mind.

“She had been born there, she made the decision, not her parents or anybody else, that she wanted as part of her statement of her faith to wear the full veil,” she told BBC One’s The Politics Show.

The health secretary added: “I would not ask her to take that off or to change a decision that she has made as an adult woman.”

Communities and local government Minister Phil Woolas also waded into the controversy, stressing that Mr Straw had “lifted the lid” on a debate which was “helping to foster understanding” between different communities.

Writing in the Sunday Mirror, Mr Woolas, whose ministerial brief includes race relations, said Muslim women had “every right” to wear a veil but should realise that those outside their community could find it “frightening and intimidating”.

The Oldham MP, who, like Mr Straw, has a significant proportion of Muslim constituents, said the determination of some Muslim women to assert their cultural identity by wearing a face veil could benefit far-right activists.

“Most British Muslims who wear it do so as an assertion of their identity and beliefs. But the more Muslim women assert their identity, the more fear and resentment it can cause among non-Muslims,” wrote Mr Woolas.

“This can lead to discrimination against Muslims which makes them even more determined to assert their identities. This is a vicious circle and the only beneficiaries are racist outfits like the British National party (BNP),” the minister added.