Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Thursday that he asks Muslim women visiting his office to remove their veils, angering some Muslim groups who said such a request was disrespectful.
Straw wrote in a column for the Lancashire Telegraph newspaper that he feels uncomfortable talking with someone whose face he cannot see, and described the veil as a "visible statement of separation and difference."
"I explain that this is a country built on freedoms. I defend absolutely the right of any women to wear a headscarf," Straw wrote.
But, he continued, "The value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or phone call, is so that you can — almost literally — see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say."
Straw, who is now leader of the House of Commons, represents a low-income, heavily Muslim community in northwestern England.
He said in the column that he worries that what he described as an increasing number of British Muslim women wearing the veil would hinder ties with non-Muslims.
Scarves that cover the face are "bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult," he wrote.
Straw said he ensures a female member of his staff is present during his meetings. He said none of his constituents had refused to remove her veil, and thought most seemed relieved to do so.
But a leader of the Islamic Human Rights Commission said Straw's position "put barriers" in the way of Muslim women at a time when they are encouraged to participate more in British society.
"We're really astonished that someone so senior and responsible as Mr. Straw would make such a statement," chairman Massoud Shadjareh said. "I'm sure many people go (to his office) with many different types of clothing and fashions. Why does he suddenly have a problem with this? It's outrageous."
But Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, told Britain's Press Association news agency that he understood Straw's position.
"The veil does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims. One can understand this," he said.
Abdullah said Muslim scholars differ over whether it is obligatory for women to cover their faces, but agree that they should cover their hair, Press Association reported.
Source: International Hearld Tribune (English)