- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

LONDON — Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw triggered a dispute yesterday by revealing that he asks Muslim women to remove veils from their faces when they visit his constituency office to seek his help.

Mr. Straw, whose Blackburn, northwest England, constituency has a 22 percent ethnic minority population, said he had expected that his request would cause problems but has found that most women are “relieved” to comply.

“I thought a lot before raising this matter a year ago,” he said.

Two years ago, Muslim schoolgirl Shabina Begum lost a High Court battle for the right to wear a long Islamic dress, which does not include a veil, to school in Luton, central England.

“I defend absolutely the right of any women to wear a headscarf,” Mr. Straw wrote in his regular column in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph newspaper. “As for the full veil, wearing it breaks no laws.”

However, he wrote that “the conversation would be of greater value if the lady took the covering from her face.”

“Indeed, 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.”

He said he now ensures he has a female member of staff with him during meetings in his office.

“I can’t recall a single occasion when the lady concerned had refused to lift her veil; and most I ask seem relieved to have done so.”

The remarks, nevertheless, drew angry response from Muslim community leaders.

Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said he was astonished that Mr. Straw does not realize his job “is to represent the interests of the constituency, not to selectively discriminate on the basis of religion.”

Nasrullah Anwar, a spokesman for the Lancashire Council of Mosques, told Sky News that he was “shocked and dismayed” by the comments.

“You would think that someone in his position would be a little more sensitive,” Mr. Anwar said.

Mr. Straw was appointed the leader of the House of Commons in May.

After Prime Minister Tony Blair, he is the politician most closely associated with Britain’s decision to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In March, when he was foreign secretary, Mr. Straw took Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Blackburn, where they were greeted by a series of anti-war demonstrations.

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