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October 05, 2006


The Rt Hon Dr John Reid

Ah yes, tits - windows to the soul. And if enlightenment values mean anything, it's the right to check whether the carpet matches the curtains.

Jimmy Doyle

You may be being a teeny bit harsh.

"George Galloway, the Bethnal Green and Bow MP, called on Mr Straw to resign, saying he was effectively asking women "to wear less".

But Dr Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he understood Mr Straw's views.

"This [the veil] does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims. One can understand this," he said, adding that Muslim opinion was divided on the wearing of the veil."

(The Groan)

Chris Williams

The problem isn't that Straw would rather that people don't cover up their faces. I would rather that my neighbour doesn't cover hers up. She's got a right to, though, just as I've got a right not to like it. Not an ideal situation, but no concern of government.

The problem with Straw is that he's a sitting MP and his constituents should be able to dress however they damn well please when they turn up to ask him questions. What next? Will he be unable to judge the character of other petitioners unless they wear a tie? After all, the tie tells a lot about the man. Not to mention the knot.


Damn right. At least the French headscarf business was over an actual principle, instead of a faintly creepy demand that someone unveil themselves before the august presence of a member of the government.


There is probably some sort of joke to be made by the humourous juxtaposition of the tradition of covering the face with a veil in parts of the Islamic world, with the fact that Jack Straw is quite hideously ugly. But I can't think of the best way to put it.

I think that the service that Straw is actually doing here though (and he presumably talks to more Muzzies than we do), is to put up a bit of a challenge to the wildly Orientalist assumption that a woman's veil is the sacred hymen of her face and that if anyone gets so much of a peep at her nose then she will be defiled forever and the peeper will have to have his knob chopped off by the Sultan.

I suspect that in actual fact, the question "could you take your veil off please, we're having a chat here" is roughly the equivalent of asking people to take their shoes off when they come into your house.


Not sure about that. People take their shoes off to stop tracking dirt into the house. Straw says he can't communicate properly without giving soemone a good screwing out, which come to think of it is the general new Labour attitude to surveillance.

Backword Dave

I'm with D2 here. I think that's the practical and sensible way.

If you're talking with someone, you do it on as equal terms as possible. Blunkett's blindness was innate, there's nothing he or anyone else could do about that. However talking to someone in a mask or a veil is unequal: they can't see you, but you can't see them. (The phone thing works because there's parity there too.)

So I think it's manners, and Jack Straw is right to say what he's said (as far as I understand it, anyway).


I don't really see where not being able to see someone's face puts me at a material disadvantage in any conversation I have with them. I've never felt that anyway. Isn't the deal with the actual person as whole, which includes any eccentricities of dress?

Also, Straw doesn't seem to think women should be wearing veils at all, whether they're in contact with him or not. And there seems to be a nasty notion of an "obligation to reveal" floating round the culture in general.

Backword Dave

I'm no fan of Straw, but I really can't see where he says any of the things you've understood him to say here. Via Wardytron with whom I agree on this.


I think Jamie's take is a bit harsh - the niqab isn't any old garment (the 'concealing a woman's face from the gaze of men other than her husband' thing is a bit of a clue). Generally, if anyone wants to start a row about the niqab - or about prescriptive interpretations of hijab in general - I'm with them. But (a) Chris is right about Straw's role as an MP; (b) this I-must-see-your-face shtick seems weird, slightly creepy and ultimately untenable; and (c) attacking a symbol of women's 'modesty' without talking about sexism just seems perverse.


He says here that he'd rather women not be veiled at all:


Asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme if he would rather the veils be discarded completely, Mr Straw replied: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather."

...which seems to be fairly clear on translating a basically aesthetic preference into a kind of moral obligation.


Comrade Straw appears to be wandering toward the edge of the reservation on this one. I think it's fair to tell the British public that their general dislike of veils is OK and they aren't bad people for having it. And as I say above, the British attitude to the veil is completely Orientalist and f-d up. But with the stuff Jamie's linked to above he's moving in the direction of a kind of "tolerance means that immigrants must tolerate us being bigoted about them" politics that has proved an utter disaster when tried in the Low Countries.

Backword Dave

I do agree with Jack Straw's original article. I largely agree with his non-prescriptive preference that women don't wear the veil.

AFAIK, wearing the veil goes with modesty in the world outside the home, and that in turns goes with not speaking or interacting with strange men beyond the most perfunctory contact. Female politicians and newsreaders in Islamic countries do not wear veils when they speak (again, AFAIK). In full-on Muslim cultures (Iran, say, or Saudi Arabia), where veil-wearing is more common, I doubt women have the right to see their MPs. So I don't think this carries across: I think what we're seeing is a bastardised Muslim culture that's totally ad hoc, and is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and not justifiable with appeals to cultural norms.

I'm not entirely convinced by the 'Jack Straw has no right to tell constituents what to wear when they meet him' argument, though I'm more sympathetic to the libertarian rather than the cultural sensitivity approach. I think he would have the right of refusal if I turned up in an IRA balaclava or KKK hood, although these are cultural signifiers of great import to some people.* Norman Geras says "any public official is entitled to require of others entering their offices how they should dress". I'd be interested to know how he'd react if I came to his class in a Waffen SS uniform.

*Although as everything I know about the significance of Klan hoods I learned from Storm Warning, I have to admit I'm no expert.


[any public official is entitled to require of others entering their offices how they should dress]

the civil service would be a lot more popular as a career if this were true.

Backword Dave

Oops. Sorry D2, should have read "I [Norman Geras] *don't think that ... [etc]" I cut and pasted too little.

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