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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Jack Straw and the Veil: This marks the end of Ruth Kelly’s ‘new and honest debate’ before it even started

The failure of Jack Straw’s colleagues to support him over expressing his preference for visitors to his office to remove their veils, appears to mark the end of the ‘new and honest debate’ called for by Ruth Kelly says the National Secular Society (NSS).

NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood said that “It has come to something where a Government minister simply expressing his feelings based on western cultural values is hung out to dry by a clutch of his own ministerial colleagues simply because these differ from those of a small number within minority cultural or religious groups.

“Some colleagues will have been motivated by intense rivalry for the deputy leadership, but the breadth of Government opposition to what Straw said, despite very strong public support for it suggests there is another factor at work. At the first hint of opposition from some Muslims, the Government is in full retreat. We predict that the sorely-needed debate will be quietly ditched.
“Both Ruth Kelly, the communities secretary, and former women’s minister Patricia Hewitt have ‘distanced herself’ from Mr Straw’s innocuous remark. Significantly, both have just been reported to have changed their mind about traditional dress being a symbol of oppression, based on speaking to women wearing it. Have these ministers ever heard of self-oppression?

“Is it to be forbidden to even refer to western cultural norms where these differ from minority faith or ethnic culture? In western society it is considered discourteous not to remove opaque sunglasses when speaking. This is because non-verbal signals communicate as much as the words spoken, such as giving some indication of the speaker’s state of mind and of their sincerity. Furthermore, Mr Straw is reportedly hard of hearing; being able to see a speaker’s lips would help him understand them better.

“It passed almost unnoticed that a Muslim school in Leicester, which is about to become publicly-funded, will require pupils to wear not just the hijab but jilbab too*. This will not just apply to children of observant Muslims but to non-observant ones too. If David Cameron’s 25% quota idea takes on, it could also include non-Muslims. If it does not, the UK has just drifted into apartheid education, and that apparently does not merit a debate at all.

“The row over this topic shows once more how very one-sided debate between minority faith religious values and western values has become. As with the controversy last week over the Pope’s remarks on Islam, the smallest criticism or challenge meets with a hostile, even threatening, reaction.”


* Moral Maze, BBC Radio 4, 4 October 2006 Dr Muhammad Mukadam, who is principal of the Leicester Islamic Academy (which will receive state funding from September 2007) and chairman of the Association of Muslim Schools, confirms that girls at his school – whether or not they are Muslim – must wear the hijab and jilbab. No choice.


Published Mon, 09 Oct 2006