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   Vol. 70/No. 41           October 30, 2006  
Remarks by British officials on
banning veil spark controversy
LONDON—Former British foreign secretary Jack Straw stirred controversy by declaring October 6 that he opposed women wearing veils.

Straw, the Labour member of parliament for Blackburn where one in five are Muslims, said he had asked women constituents visiting him to remove their veils. When he was asked the next day whether he would prefer women in general not to wear veils he said “yes.” Straw indicated he did not favor a legal ban.

The head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, and Harriet Harman, the government’s constitutional affairs minister, backed Straw.

“If I were [a] head teacher, ” Phillips said, “I would probably say that veils should not be worn in the classroom.”

Oliver Letwin of the Conservative Party opposed Straw. “Muslim women who want to wear a veil should be able to wear a veil,” he said.

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain asked, “Does Mr. Straw mean that people should give up certain cultural and religious customs and practices simply because a vast majority of the country do not share them? That is saying that one culture or one way of life is superior to another.”

The day after Straw’s remark a woman in Liverpool had her veil torn from her face by a man chanting racist abuse. The former chair of Liverpool’s Islamic Institute, Akbar Ali, blamed Straw’s comments for inciting the attack.

There have been attempts to force women who are Muslim not to wear the veil. Aishah Azmi, 24, a bilingual teaching assistant at a West Yorkshire school, was suspended for refusing to remove her veil in class. “She should be sacked, ” said Phil Woolas, the government’s Race and Faith minister, according to the October 15 Sunday Mirror. “She has put herself in a position where she can’t do her job. ”

Authorities at the Imperial College here have banned students from wearing the veil, claiming alleged “security concerns raised by the terrorist incidents.” The local Student Union supports this position. The Federation of Student Islamic Societies opposes the ban.

The governments of Turkey and Tunisia have banned the veil in public, as has Paris for French public schools.

British prime minister Anthony Blair joined the debate October 17, saying the veil is “a mark of separation,” but stopping short of calling for its banning.  
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