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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 October 2006, 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK
North West: The veil - more than a matter of modesty
Michelle Mayman
The Politics Show North West

Jack Straw
'I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face-to-face' who I could not see'

The veil... this is the debate that Jack Straw has sparked off, going to the heart of multi-culturalism - but did he expect the resulting fire?

In the space of a few days the veil has become a symbol of the division in our towns and cities.

Jack Straw says he thought "long and hard" before he wrote his column in Blackburn's local paper, The Lancashire Telegraph... and he decided it was something that needed to be said.

This is an extract from that column by Jack Straw:

"It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking.

In part, this was because of the apparent incongruity between the signals which indicate common bonds - the entirely English accent, the couples' education (wholly in the UK) - and the fact of the veil.

Above all, it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face-to-face' who I could not see.

Lady in a veil
A mark of traditional femininity or a barrier?
I was also concerned about the wider implications for community relations of what is an increasing trend, if still very small scale..."

Under siege

Jack Straw certainly got his debate - whether he expected it to be quite such a hot topic is another matter.

It led national bulletins on TV and Radio, hit all the front pages - and an overwhelming number of national newspaper polls backed him - even Radio 1 had a poll on it.

All this has left some Muslims feeling under siege.

Yesterday, in his constituency - Blackburn, there appeared to be more women wearing veils than usual.

A number of them took part in a small demonstration, calling for an immediate apology from Mr Straw - some women going as far as to call him racist.

Jack Straw has always been very aware of the sensitivities of his Muslim electorate.

He has walked quite a tightrope - backing action in Iraq, his close relationship with Condoleezza Rice - but he has also spoken out against Israeli action in the Middle East.

Was Straw right?

Lady in a veil
There are very entrenched views on both sides of the debate

Today, on The Politics Show, in the Northwest we examined the effect Jack Straw's comments have had in his constituency.

Shanaz Hussein, magistrate and advisor to the Lancashire Council of Mosques, says the Muslim community is hurting and has been damaged by Jack Straw's comments.

Phil Riley from Blackburn's Constituency Labour Party says Mr Straw was right to say what so many others have all been thinking - that the veil is a visible barrier to social cohesion.

He believes that mainstream political parties have a duty to tackle these issues - rather than leave it to be muttered in the back rooms of pubs and behind the closed doors in the living rooms of society.

Join Tony Wilson on the Politics Show on Sunday 08 October 2006 at 12:00 BST on BBC One.

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