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Editorial comment.

The issue of veiling has occupied a huge amount of media airtime and column inches in Britain over recent weeks. The debate was sparked by former foreign secretary Jack Straw who revealed he has asked female Muslim constituents to remove their niqabs--the facial covering which exposes only the eyes--while visiting him in his constituency office. Mr Straw described the niqab as a bar to effective personal communications as well as an obstacle to intercommunity relations.

The rights and wrongs of Jack Straw's actions could run and run, some Muslim leaders are against him, others claim he has a valid point, likewise members of the non-Muslim establishment. Whatever the eventual outcome, for now, his words have provoked sensible, serious debate among not only politicians and journalists but also among ordinary people and, what is very clear, is that despite the media-fuelled hype about Islamophobia, the majority of people (some 77% in one poll) questioned in the streets, offices and shops of Britain, are firmly of the opinion that Muslim women should be allowed to wear the veil if they choose to do so. I have heard, for the first time ever outside an organised conference or seminar, non-Muslim women discussing with Muslim women--candidly and with humour--why they choose to cover their faces. I have heard Muslim women questioned on whether they are forced to veil by their husbands or fathers; if they agree that to cover the face conceals emotions, putting others at a disadvantage; and, since the Koran does not require veiling, do they feel that to do so is to fulfil a religious obligation?

I have heard eloquent and erudite answers from Muslim women that convinced me and, I hope others, beyond any doubt that the act of veiling, in Britain at least, is usually a personal choice, having nothing to do with husbands or fathers; that veiling does conceal some emotions and therefore yes, in certain situations, does put others at a disadvantage; and, that as far as the religious aspect of veiling is concerned, it is not about observing any religious rule but a sign of the wearers personal devotion to God.

There has been much subjective rambling on the subject of veiling from politicians and the media, much grinding of personal axes and airing of private agendas. However, there has also been real interaction and stimulating debate between women on both sides of the fence who have rarely, if ever, had a chance to speak freely with each other. And, when they did, to their surprise they discovered that while there were things that made them different, there was much in which they were the same. If Jack Straw's statement helped bring us to that, it has not been an entirely bad thing.
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Title Annotation:veiling
Author:Lancater, Pat
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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