Straw in your face
Let me first make it clear that this is one of the few occasions where I agree with Jack Straw. The face-covering veil (niqab) is an unnecessary and unnatural attire which can make interlocutors feel uncomfortable. And there is nothing Islamic about it. When Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula into the Byzantine empire the Muslims picked it up from the Christians. Church teaching in those days was that since Eve was the temptress who made Adam loose paradise, women were soul-less and evil and must be veiled from men in order to protect them from temptation. Since veiling was impractical for women working the fields, only upper class ladies covered their faces. When the Muslim women saw them they considered it a status symbol and imitated the practice. Thankfully it did not become the norm since Islam only mandates a head cover which leaves the face unveiled. When the Saudis tried to insist that women entering the Kaaba during the Hajj pilgrimage should cover their faces, this move was universally rejected as unsound and unfounded in Islamic jurisprudence. Sadly, the Saudis have developed an obsession with the alleged temptation emanating from women not unlike that of the early Byzantines, probably because it excuses men when straying from the path.
However, I doubt Jack Straw's motives. He's never been one for making a principled stance. He has always been a career politician. It seems that to position oneself in the Labour party after Blair one has to show that one is tough on Muslim aspirations to assert their identity. John Reid earned brownie points by telling Muslim parents to guard their children from the evil influence of radicalisation and terrorism. Jack Straw does not want to be seen as weak and dependent on the large Muslim populace amongst his constituents. He is throwing his hat in the ring of the current debate on multiculturalism and community relationships, calculating that his comment will only offend a few Muslims and not the mainstream.
By doing so, however, he is guilty of what Muslim men were always being accused of: telling women how to dress. In an interview on Radio 4 he clearly stated that the veiled women he talked to dressed in this fashion not because their husbands asked them to, but because they themselves wanted to do so. There is a big difference between voicing an opinion on whether a certain pattern of dress seems appropriate and actually asking people to change their attire. An MP might not be too charmed by a young lad with a studded face coming to him for advice, but to ask him to remove that ring from his eyebrow before listening to him would be considered patronising and unacceptable. That an MP feels justified in asking Muslim women to remove their veil indicates that British society today is no longer defining itself independently by its own values, but negatively by what it perceives to be unacceptable in the other. Just as the Muslims adopting the veil from Byzantine Christian women compromised their own theology by doing so, secular Western society by its obsession with providing an antithesis to Islam is beginning to dismantle its own system of beliefs. The very society that still argues about freedom and choice has become restrictive and prescriptive.