Peter Byrne  /  AP
Muslim women wearing veils out doing their shopping in Blackburn, England, on Friday. Britain's former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's preference that devout Muslim women visiting his office remove their veils ignited a heated debate Friday about cultural isolation and tolerance in Britain. 
updated 10/6/2006 1:00:18 PM ET 2006-10-06T17:00:18

Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s preference that Muslim women visiting his office remove their veils ignited a heated debate Friday about cultural isolation and tolerance in Britain.

Straw wrote in a column for the Lancashire Telegraph newspaper published Thursday that he feels uncomfortable talking with someone whose face he cannot see, and described the veil as a “visible statement of separation and difference.”

The Lancashire Council of Mosques, based in Blackburn, called Straw’s position “offensive and disturbing.”

Straw says veils inhibit communication
Fauzia Ali, 23, who lives in Straw’s parliamentary district of Blackburn, 220 miles northwest of London, chooses not to wear a veil or a head scarf, but said “I know some women would refuse to leave the house if they had to remove them.”

“It is trivial to suggest that you need to see someone’s face to speak to them freely,” Ali said. “People can still communicate with a veil on.”

Straw, who is now leader of the House of Commons, a senior Cabinet position, represents a low-income, heavily Muslim community in northwestern England. Muslims, mainly from Pakistan and India, make up 19 percent of the population in his district.

Straw says he believes veils inhibit communication and are a sign of division in society. At his constituency office, he says he asks — but doesn’t insist — that veiled women reveal their faces, and he said the women have always complied.

Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he understood Straw’s views about the veil.

“This does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims,” Abdullah said, adding that opinion among Muslims about veils was divided.

Cultural clash
The debate highlighted anxieties about cultural clashes in Britain, which gained force after four young Muslims killed 52 commuters in suicide attacks in London last year.

Catherine Hossain, of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, said Straw’s remarks were not helpful in addressing deeper problems.

“My real concern is that he’s trivialized a real and serious problem of the segregation that we have between Muslims and non-Muslims in towns like Blackburn,” Hossain said.

Zareen Roohi Ahmed, chief executive of the British Muslim Forum, also criticized Straw’s stance.

“My worry is that if someone in Jack Straw’s position can get away with asking Muslim women to remove their veils, what is to stop employers, bus drivers or shop keepers from applying the same kind of pressure?” Ahmed said.

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