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Comments by then-Leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw in 2006 began the British debate on veils.
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The British debate over veils began in October 2006 when the MP and government minister Jack Straw wrote in his local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, that, while he did not want to be "prescriptive", he preferred talking to women who did not wear a niqab (face veil) as he could see their face, and asked women who were wearing such items to remove them when they spoke to him, making clear that they could decline his request and that a female member of staff was in the room.


Straw said he told the newspaper this information to open a debate on the subject, and not because of the upcoming deputy leader election in the Labour Party.[1] Straw was Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq War and since 1979 had been the Member of Parliament for the constituency of Blackburn, where at least one quarter of the population are Muslim. Straw later stated that he would like to see the veil "abolished" altogether, adding that he was worried about "implications of separateness".[1]

Straw's views were met with a mixed response, with some agreeing to the idea of a debate, some arguing that Muslim women should not wear veils in the United Kingdom, and some, such as the newspaper the Daily Express, calling for the veil to be banned. Others were opposed to Straw's intervention, and some accused him of encouraging prejudice.

In 2010, Jack Straw publicly apologised over his 2006 comments, stating "If I had realised the scale of publicity that they [his comments] received in October 2006, I wouldn’t have made them and I am sorry that it has caused problems and I offer that apology."[2]

Background to the debate: the face veil in Islam

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A woman in a niqab in England.

See also: Purdah and Ahkam

One of the tenets of Islam is a requirement for modesty in both men and women. This concept is known in Arabic as hijab, which refers to far more than Islam and clothing. The word "hijab" has entered English and other European languages with a somewhat different meaning, referring either to sartorial hijab, or to one article thereof, namely the headscarf worn by many Muslim women.

Muslims follow various schools of thought (madhhabs) which have differences of opinions on Islamic law (sharia). Women who wear a face-veil tend to observe the hadiths (sayings of Muhammad) instructing women to cover all that is not essential, which some interpret as everything except the eyes and hands. This belief is a minority position. Most Muslims believe women should allow their faces to be visible, but should cover the hair (and, in many cultures, the throat as well). An even smaller minority wear all-covering garments such as the burqa. These rulings (fatwa) are based on the understandings of modesty and the public display of the body (awrah).

Expressions of opposition to the wearing of the niqab

Following Straw's comments, support came from fellow Labour members, the then-opposition Conservatives, right-wing national press and others.

Tony Blair, then Labour Prime Minister, described veils as a "mark of separation",[3] and Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed with this approach, adding that he thought it would be "better for Britain" if fewer Muslim women wore the veil, and that he supports "what Jack Straw has said".[4]

Labour MP Nigel Griffiths, then Deputy Leader of the Commons, said "it's all very well for Muslim women to say that they feel comfortable wearing the veil but ... the veil does not make other people feel comfortable. In that way it could be said that they are being selfish."[5] Phil Woolas, another Labour MP, who had a position in charge of race relations policy, said that Muslim women wearing the veil are "frightening and intimidating" and congratulated Straw for starting the debate.[6]

The Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis of the Conservatives, suggested that Muslims were responsible for white flight, adding that the Parliament may be "inadvertently encouraging a kind of voluntary apartheid".[7] Bill Deedes, a former Conservative Party politician, added his weight to the debate in an opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph, saying that Islam "is the only faith on Earth that persuades its followers to seek political power and impose a law – sharia – which shapes everyone's style of life", and that Islam "forbids" Muslims from conforming with British society.[8]

Simon Jenkins wrote a piece for The Sunday Times asking why Muslim women who wore the veil wanted to live in the UK; however, he cast doubt on the effectiveness of Straw's statements.[9]

Speaking to The Jewish Chronicle, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy asserted that "the veil is an invitation to rape" because, as philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas said, "[having seen] the naked face of your interlocutor, you cannot kill him or her, you cannot rape him, you cannot violate him."[10]

In August 2018, Boris Johnson was criticised for a column that he had written in the Daily Telegraph. As part of an article arguing that burqa bans like the one introduced in Denmark were wrong, as women should be free to wear what they want, Johnson nevertheless said that Muslim women who wore burqas "look like letter boxes" and compared them to "bank robbers". In response to the piece, the Muslim Council of Britain accused Johnson of "pandering to the far right", while the Labour MP Jess Phillips said she would report Johnson to the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The Conservative Party chairman, Brandon Lewis, called on Johnson to apologise for his remarks. The Conservative peer Baroness Warsi accused Johnson of indulging in "dog whistle" politics and called for disciplinary action if he did not apologise.[11][12] The Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, however, said that Johnson "did not go far enough" and it was the Government which should be apologising. Dorries said the burqa should have no place in Britain and it was "shameful that countries like France and Denmark are way ahead of us on this".[13]

In the aftermath of the Johnson article, Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for the Labour Party, said about British Muslim women who decide to dress in the niqab, "I wouldn’t want my four year old looked after by somebody wearing a burka."[14]

Opposition by political parties

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has had a policy to ban full-facial coverings since 2010, while the British National Party (BNP) favoured banning it only in schools.[15] In 2014, UKIP clarified their stance, favouring only a ban at schools and places where security is a concern,[16] while the BNP are now in favour of a total ban.[17]

Opposition to raising of the issue

Opposition to the debate mainly came from left and far-left politicians, parties and newspapers,[18] but also from some Conservative politicians.[19]

Ken Livingstone, then the Labour Mayor of London, said that he was "amazed by his [Straw's] insensitivity", adding that "bearing in mind this person [the constituent] has come to you to ask for something, the power imbalance in that relationship means it’s completely unacceptable behaviour on Jack Straw’s part. That a powerful man can say to a completely powerless woman, I think you should take your veil off, I think is completely and utterly wrong and insensitive." The socialist Respect Party urged Straw to resign. "Who does Jack Straw think he is to tell his female constituents that he would prefer they disrobe before they meet him," George Galloway said in a press release. "For that is what this amounts to. It is a male politician telling women to wear less."[20] The Socialist Workers Party said that Straw's words allowed for an "open season for all who want to blame Muslims for the problems in Britain and to blame the victims of racism for the racism in society".[18]

Jon Cruddas, a Labour MP and a candidate for the post of Deputy Leader, suggested that ministers were playing "fast and loose" with religious tensions adding, "The solution does not lie in an ever more muscular bidding war among politicians to demonstrate who can be tougher on migrants, asylum-seekers and minorities. Nor is it in using racial or religious symbols to create controversy. That only makes the situation worse. It is not the role of politicians to play fast and loose with symbols of difference, especially when they drive the political centre of gravity to the right as a consequence."[citation needed]

Writing in The Guardian, Madeleine Bunting claimed that Straw's "singling out" of Muslim women actually intensifies the division that Straw says he wants to remove.[21]

Rabbi Alex Chapper of the Ilford Federation Synagogue wrote that "I feel his comments were totally unacceptable and display, at best, insensitivity to, and at worst, an ignorance of the laws, customs and practices of Islam. It is nonsense to suggest that, 'women who wore veils made community relations more difficult', rather it is remarks such as these that create divisions and intolerance in Britain," adding "if you're going to single out for condemnation, or even ban, one style of dress where do you draw the line? Could the kipah or sheitel be next, are they divisive in Mr Straw's eye?."[citation needed]

Daniel Hannan, prominent Conservative MEP and columnist for The Daily Telegraph, stated that "clothing ought not to be a matter for the courts." He also pointed out that other highly offensive pieces of clothing (to him) such as Adolf Hitler T-shirts, Che Guevara T-shirts, and Osama bin Laden T-shirts are inherently considered legal due to freedom of expression.[19] Baroness Warsi, a Muslim Conservative peer and cabinet minister, has defended women's right to wear the burka. She has said, "Just because a woman wears the burka, it doesn't mean she can't engage in everyday life. If women don't have a choice they are oppressed." She has also said, "There are women who wear the burka who run successful internet businesses which don't require you there face to face."[22] Minister of State for Immigration Damian Green has labeled a ban on face-coverings as "un-British" and "undesirable" for a "tolerant and mutually respectful society" like the U.K.[23]

Opposition to the tone of the debate

Accusations of Islamophobia

Violent attacks

Muslim groups blamed Straw's comments in part for an arson attack on an Islamic centre in the Scottish town of Falkirk and an attack on a woman wearing a niqab.[37][38][39]

Media spoof

The Daily Star was prevented from publishing a mock-up page of what it would look like if it was run by Muslims. The mock-up "Daily Fatwa", which promised a "Page 3 Burkha Babes Special" and competitions to "Burn a Flag and Win a Corsa" and "Win hooks just like Hamza's", was prepared to run as page 6 in that day's edition till members of the National Union of Journalists refused to co-operate on the grounds that it was deliberately offensive to Muslims.[40] Zoo Magazine, one of the classic "lads' mags", instead announced plans to publish a double-page spread making fun of Muslim law. (Ben Knowles is the deputy editor of the Star, and former editor of Zoo.) The section will be labelled "Your all-new veil-friendly Zoo!", while other headlines include "Public stonings!", "Beheadings!" and "Absolutely nobody having any fun whatsoever". The magazine, which regularly features naked women will, on these pages, instead feature a woman in a burqa, with the heading "A girl! As you've never seen her before!".[41]

Opinion polling

Ipsos MORI conducted a more thorough opinion poll on 11 October 2006.[42] This found that 51% of the public agreed (saying they "strongly agree" or "tend to agree") that Straw was right to raise the issue, with 31% saying he was wrong. It also found 61% agreed with the statement: "By wearing a veil Muslim women are segregating themselves". However, 51% of the public thought that Straw's comments would damage race relations, and 77% agreed that "Muslim women should have the right to wear the veil".

In July 2010, Yougov conducted a poll of 2,205 adults in Britain, it found that 67% supported a complete ban on wearing the Burka across Britain.[43]

A further Yougov poll, in August 2016, suggested 57% of British people favoured banning the burka in public, with 25% being against such a ban.[44]

In 2018, following Boris Johnson's comments on the Burka, Sky found that 59% agreed that a Burka ban should be put in place, with 26% being against a ban.[45]

Foreign commentary on the UK debate

Speaking of the British debate, Fox News correspondent John Gibson said the veil "is clearly a sign of separation, clearly a sign of wanting to avoid assimilating in the western culture, whether it's here or Britain or Italy. And it is clearly a sign of a subculture that wants to establish its own rules separate and apart. Speaking as an American: no Sharia law, no veils. If you're here, be American,"[46] a remark which prompted the Council on American-Islamic Relations to encourage people to complain about Gibson's remarks.[47]

Parliamentary debate

A private member's bill titled "Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill 2010-11", sponsored by Conservative MP Philip Hollobone was scheduled to be debated in the UK Parliament on 20 January 2012, during a Second Reading debate. The bill would make it an offence to wear a face covering in certain public and private venues in the UK.[48] Hollobone has since submitted the bill for debate again.[49]

Further cases

The veil in schools

Daily Express cover for 21 October 2006.

The debate was compounded when Aishah Azmi was sacked from a Church of England school after refusing to remove her niqab in front of the small children she had been hired to teach. She had not mentioned this condition at her job interview, at which she had not worn a niqab. She took her case to an employment tribunal, which saw, unusually, many British politicians commenting on it before it was heard. They included the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who said he supported the school's actions, and race relations minister Phil Woolas, who said she should be "sacked". Azmi lost her case for unfair dismissal but intends on appealing the decision to a higher court.[needs update]

On 20 March 2007, new guidance was given to schools in England that they will be able to ban pupils from wearing full-face veils on security, safety or learning grounds. Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said successive ministers had failed to give proper guidance about schools' obligations regarding religious dress and "to now proceed to issue guidance against Muslim communities is simply shocking".[50]

Birmingham Metropolitan College, with a large Muslim enrolment, banned all face coverings for security reasons in September 2013,[51] a decision supported by Prime Minister David Cameron. Union activism had the ban overturned.[52] Several newspapers claimed that private Islamic schools in Tower Hamlets, Southall and Lancaster force pupils to wear face veils when they are outside the school buildings. The three schools in question clearly denied this. However, their school uniforms contain headscarfs and the jilbab, a long gown. The former Mayor of London and former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, opposes having children wearing veils.[53]

The veil in crime

Veils have been accused of hindering the fight against crime:

The veil and identification at national borders

Conservative politician Douglas Hogg asked minister Liam Byrne what instructions had been given to officers at borders in dealing with people wearing veils or other garments obscuring their identity. Byrne stated that in accordance with the Immigration Act 1971 all persons arriving in the United Kingdom must satisfy an immigration officer as to their nationality and identity. Where there are sensitive or cultural reasons why it is not possible for a person to remove a veil or other garment at the immigration control, they will be taken to a private area where a female officer will ask them to lift their veil so that their identity can be verified.[58] There are powers to refuse entry to persons who cannot be satisfactorily identified.[59]

The veil in court

In November 2006, The Times reported that a judge adjourned a court case and took advice after lawyer Shabnam Mughal twice declined to remove her niqab. Judge George Glossop requested that she do so as he was struggling to hear her during the hearing.[60]

In August 2013, a judge ordered an East London Muslim woman to remove her veil during her trial. However, in September, a compromise was reached that she would only have to do so while giving evidence. The judge, Peter Murphy, said "the niqab has become the elephant in the courtroom".[61]

See also


  1. ^ a b 'Remove full veils' urges StrawBBC News. 6 October 2006
  2. ^ 26 April 2010
  3. ^ Blair's concerns over face veils BBC News Online. 17 October 2006
  4. ^ a b Brown breaks ranks to back Straw over lifting Muslim veils[dead link] – 11 October 2006
  5. ^ It's selfish to wear the veil, says Straw aide Archived 2 May 2008 at the Wayback MachineEvening Standard. 7 October 2006
  6. ^ 'Muslim women who wear the veil can be frightening & intimidating'Sunday Mirror. 8 October 2006 Archived 2 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Tories accuse Muslims of 'creating apartheid by shutting themselves off'The Daily Telegraph. 15 October 2006
  8. ^ Muslims can never conform to 'our' waysThe Daily Telegraph. 20 October 2006
  9. ^ Political fancy footwork under Straws veil of moderationSimon Jenkins at The Sunday Times. October 2006
  10. '^ The Jewish Chronicle, 14 October 2006 edition. Not available online, quote in context: "Our time is almost up, but BHL becomes the most animated I have seen him when I ask him about Jack Straw's intervention on Muslim women and the veil. 'Jack Straw', he says, leaning close to me, 'made a great point. He did not say that he was against the veil. He said it is much easier, much more comfortable, respectful, to speak with a woman with a naked face. And without knowing, he quoted Levinas, who is the philosopher of the face. Levinas says that [having seen] the naked face of your interlocutor, you cannot kill him or her, you cannot rape him, you cannot violate him. So when the Muslims say that the veil is to protect women, it is the contrary. The veil is an invitation to rape"
  11. ^ "Johnson burka 'letter box' jibe sparks anger". BBC News. 6 August 2018. Retrieved 7 August 2018.
  12. ^ "Johnson 'won't apologise' for burka comments". BBC News. 7 August 2018. Retrieved 7 August 2018.
  13. ^ "Conservative chairman calls for apology from Boris Johnson over burka remarks". BT News. 7 August 2018. Archived from the original on 5 June 2020. Retrieved 9 August 2018.
  14. ^ Harpin, Lee (8 August 2018). "Emily Thornberry said she would not want her family 'looked after by someone wearing a burka'". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 8 August 2018.
  15. ^ "UKIP's Farage calls for burka ban". BBC News. 17 January 2010.
  16. ^ "Nigel Farage: Ban The Face Veil in Schools, Airports And Banks". The Huffington Post UK. 4 October 2013.
  17. ^ "BNP Say Ban the Burqa NOW! Video". British National Party. Archived from the original on 20 December 2013. Retrieved 20 December 2013.
  18. ^ a b Jack Straw's veil comments threaten to inflame racismSocialist Worker. 7 October 2006. Archived 4 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ a b Daniel Hannan (18 July 2010). "We don't ban Che Guevara tee-shirts, so why should we ban the burqa?". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 21 July 2010.
  20. ^ Jack Straw: resign now or be driven out at the electionRESPECT The Unity Coalition Press release. 5 October 2006
  21. ^ Jack Straw has unleashed a storm of prejudice and intensified divisionMadeleine Bunting writing for The Guardian. 9 October 2006
  22. ^ "Baroness Sayeeda Warsi in burka ban blast at MPs". Daily Mirror. 3 August 2010.
  23. ^ Stratton, Allegra (18 July 2010). "Copying French ban on burqa would be un-British, says minister". The Guardian. London.
  24. ^ How not to have a debateJohn Yorke Denham writing for The Guardian. 9 October 2006.
  25. ^ Race equality head backs Straw on wearing of veil Archived 29 October 2006 at the Wayback MachineThe Independent. 21 October 2006.
  26. ^ Warning over UK race riot dangerBBC News. 22 October 2006
  27. ^ Cable Street and the Nikab Archived 2 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine – By George Galloway on behalf of the Respect party.
  28. ^ Muslims are the new JewsIndia Knight for The Sunday Times. 15 October 2006
  29. ^ Same methods used to attack Muslims today as used against JewsKen LivingstoneMayor of London Press Release. 8 October 2006 Archived 2 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  30. ^ "Interview: Peter Oborne". 30 October 2006.
  31. ^ Labour is demonising MuslimsThe 1990 Trust. 16 October 2006 Archived 5 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  32. ^ Labour accused of aiding extremists by its focus on Muslim issuesThe Independent. October, 2006
  33. ^ Open Letter against IslamophobiaStop the War Coalition. PDF format. Archived 1 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  34. ^ Unite against Islamophobia in Glasgow: ‘the government is terrified of our unity’ by Kev Kiernan, Socialist Worker, 28 October 2006
  35. ^ BMI calls national rally to defend religious freedom and demand an end to attacks on Muslims Archived 10 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine – British Muslim Initiative Press Release. 18 October 2006
  36. ^ Sorry, but we can't just pick and choose what to tolerateDavid Edgar. 11 October 2006.
  37. ^ Islamic Centre gutted by fireFalkirk Herald. 6 October 2006 Archived 18 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  38. ^ Straw words 'sparked veil attack'BBC News. 7 October 2006
  39. ^ Attacks on Muslims rise after veils row Archived 23 October 2006 at the Wayback MachineThe Independent. 21 October 2006
  40. ^ Newsroom revolt forces 'Star' to drop its 'Daily Fatwa' spoofThe Independent. 19 October 2006
  41. ^ Zoo stirs up trouble as it follows Star with 'Muslim' spread Archived 2 November 2006 at the Wayback Machine – Brand Republic. 23 October 2006
  42. ^ [1]Muslim Women Wearing Veils. 16 November 2014., Ipsos MORI. The sample size was 1,023.
  43. ^ "Islamic Burka Ban: 67% Of Britons Agree". Sky News. 16 July 2010. Archived from the original on 11 October 2012. Retrieved 19 July 2010.
  44. ^ "Islamic Burka Ban: 57% Of Britons Agree". The Independent. 1 September 2016. Retrieved 1 September 2016.
  45. ^ "Sky Data poll: Comparing women who wear burkas to bank robbers 'not racist'". 8 August 2018.
  46. ^ Muslim Veil Shouldn't Be Worn in WestFox News. 18 October 2006
  47. ^ Incitement: 'No veils. If you're here, be American' Archived 20 October 2006 at the Wayback MachineCouncil on American-Islamic Relations Press release. 19 October 2006
  48. ^ "Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill 2010-11".
  49. ^ "Birmingham Metropolitan College defends ban on students wearing veils « Express & Star". 10 September 2013.
  50. ^ "Schools allowed to ban face veils". BBC.
  51. ^ Denham, Jess (10 September 2013). "Birmingham college bans the burka". The Independent. London.
  52. ^ "Birmingham college makes U-turn on face veil ban". 13 September 2013.
  53. ^ Holehouse, Matthew (18 September 2013). "Boris Johnson: forcing children to wear burka to school is against country's values of liberty". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  54. ^ "Inquiry call on 'suspect in veil'". BBC News. 21 December 2006.
  55. ^ "Login". The Times. London.
  56. ^ "Jury sees 21 July 'burka escape'". BBC News. 20 February 2007.
  57. ^ "Selfridges robbery: 'Men in burkas' in 'smash and grab'". BBC News. 7 June 2013.
  58. ^ Guidance on how to treat women wearing clothing that covers their face – 1 July 2010
  59. ^ Immigration staff can ask Muslim women to remove veils Archived 29 June 2009 at the Wayback Machine – 26 October 2006
  60. ^ "Britain: Lawyer Refuses to Remove Veil in Court". The New York Times. 9 November 2006.
  61. ^ "Muslim woman must remove veil to give trial evidence". BBC News. 16 September 2013.