This the full text of Jack Straw's column in the Lancashire Telegraph. "I want to unveil my views on an important issue"
This the full text of Jack Straw's column in the Lancashire Telegraph.
"It's really nice to meet you face to face, Mr Straw," said this pleasant lady in a broad Lancashire accent. She had come to my constituency advice bureau with a problem. I smiled back. "The chance would be a fine thing," I thought to myself but did not say out loud.
The lady was wearing the full veil. Her eyes were uncovered but the rest of her face was in cloth.
Her husband, a professional man I vaguely knew, was with her. She did most of the talking. I got down the detail of the problem, told them that I thought I could sort it out, and we parted amicably.
All this was about a year ago. It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking. In part, this was because of the apparent incongruity between the signals which indicate common bonds — the entirely English accent, the couple's education (wholly in the UK) — and the fact of the veil. Above all, it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone "face-to-face" who I could not see.
So I decided that I wouldn't just sit there the next time a lady turned up to see me in a full veil, and I haven't.
Now, I always ensure that a female member of my staff is with me. I explain that this is a country built on freedoms. I defend absolutely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf. As for the full veil, wearing it breaks no laws.
I go on to say that I think, however, that the conversation would be of greater value if the lady took the covering from her face. Indeed, the value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or phone call, is so that you can — almost literally — see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say.
I thought it may be hard going when I made my request for face-to-face interviews in these circumstances. However, I can't recall a single occasion when a lady has refused to lift the veil; most seem relieved.
Last Friday was a case in point. The veil came off almost as soon as I opened my mouth. I dealt with the problems the lady brought to me. We then had an interesting debate about veil wearing. This contained some surprises. It became clear that the husband played no part in her decision. She had read books about the issue. She felt more comfortable wearing the veil when out. People bothered her less.
OK, I said, but did she think that veil wearing was required by the Koran? I was no expert, but many Muslim scholars said that the full veil was not obligatory at all. And women as well as men went head uncovered the whole time when on their Hajj — pilgrimage — in Mecca.
The husband chipped in to say that this matter was "more cultural than religious". I said I would reflect on what she said to me. Would she, however, think hard about what I said — in particular my concern that wearing the full veil was bound to make better relations between the two communities more difficult. It was such a visible statement of separation and of difference. I thought a lot before raising this matterand still more before writing this. But if not me, who? My concern could be misplaced. But I think there is an issue here."