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Last Updated: Friday, 6 October 2006, 13:43 GMT 14:43 UK
Veil issue 'a matter for Muslims'
A woman reads a newspaper in Regents Park
Muslim women say the veil is an expression of faith
Commons leader Jack Straw has sparked controversy over his views that he would prefer Muslim women not to wear a veil which covers the face - or niqab - when visiting his MP's surgery.

Mr Straw's comments have caused concern from some Muslim groups - the Islamic Human Rights Commission said his views were "astonishing" - while Dr Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he could understand Mr Straw's views.

Here, some Muslim women tell the BBC News website how they regard the niqab.

ZAFREEN KHAN, 29, SLOUGH

Ms Khan said the niqab is a woman's expression of religion and that "women find comfort and solace in it. It's an expression of their identity, I don't think they do it to appear unreadable or invite suspicion.

"I don't think it is right of Mr Straw to say 'I will only help you if you take it off'.

"I can understand some people's concerns that communication is made more difficult by not seeing expression - you can't see what they are saying or see them smile, for instance. It is their choice but they should be aware it does hinder communication."

But she said: "If they are going in to ask their local MP for help it shouldn't be on the condition that they remove an item of clothing."

She said she would not expect Mr Straw to demand an Orthodox Jew to take off items of clothing related to their faith.

Muslim women

And she stressed removing such an item of clothing - especially in the presence of strangers - was not a decision taken lightly.

"They don't choose to take it off. What will help community relations is if some women would explain why they choose to wear it. The Muslim community could be more vocal about it. It has opened up debate.

Ms Khan said she was happy to wear the hijab: "I subscribe to the interpretation that that is an obligation and I am happy to fulfil that."

ANNIKA WAHEED, 22, EAST LONDON

Annika Waheed wears the niqab - she began wearing it last Monday, something she described as "good timing!

"It is a spiritual thing. I only really started practising my religion about 18 months ago. I started wearing the hijab - and then I just thought I'd do it."

She said six months after wearing the hijab she felt it was "the best decision I had ever made" and feels strongly that the niqab has made her feel closer to God.

Find out about different styles of Muslim veils and headscarves

She said that if in her work she found the niqab was getting in the way of conducting interviews she would take it off - but only if she was in the presence of women.

If she was a constituent of Mr Straw's, she would "turn it round on him - ask him if his shirt was too tight would he take it off!"

Ms Waheed added that wearing the niqab does not necessarily make it harder for people to communicate with her.

"I can tell if someone is friendly by their body posture.

"I wanted to go on the train the other day and my ticket wasn't working. The attendant could see I was in a rush. The ticket attendant came up to me and he asked me if I was OK. He could instantly see I was in a rush - and that wasn't exactly from my facial expressions."

CATHERINE HOSSAIN, 27, LONDON

Catherine Hossain believes Mr Straw's remarks are "headline-grabbing" and will not help the "problems of segregation in places like Blackburn".

"I wear the hijab - personally I would never wear the niqab. But I do respect the right of people to wear it if it's what they want.

"I don't think it's an obligation under Islam. I feel more comfortable with my face uncovered. For instance, I am a nursery school teacher, and I couldn't do my job is my face was covered."

Muslim women shopping
Muslim women interpret dressing modestly in different ways

But she said talking to a woman wearing the niqab is "not as off-putting as people might expect". She is upset at people offering opinions on Muslim women's dress who have no experience of dealing with the community.

She added: "The niqab is being seen as a symbol of separateness it is just people dressing according to their faith."

SAFOORA NANA, 19, BATLEY, YORKSHIRE

Ms Nana wears the niqab and has done so for two years.

"It's a requirement, an obligation for a woman to wear a niqab," she said. She agreed there is a debate over whether a woman should cover her face or just her hair but she believes teachings from the Prophet Muhammad make it clear a woman should cover her face.

She does not believe the niqab gets in the way of human interaction: "We don't have a problem communicating over the phone or on e-mail. It doesn't make a difference.

"Muslim women want to be judged on our brains and what we think, and not what we look like."

"I've been called terrorist and suicide bomber and ninja. I just laugh it off. When I turn round and say 'hi' to these people, they're fine."

FATIMA MANJI, 20, PETERBOROUGH

Ms Manji does not wear a niqab and welcomes debate from within the Muslim community on what is appropriate to wear - but does not believe it was Jack Straw's place to comment on Muslim dress.

"I personally don't think it's a good idea to cover our faces in the society we live in," she said. "I think it can be quite intimidating.... I think covering your hair is enough."

"I think this should be debated within the Muslim community. I don't think this is the right forum. It is something being debated by the highest level of Muslim scholars."

We don't need Jack Straw initiating debate for us
Fatima Manji

She also believes that Britain's secular government should keep to a separation of church and state - and that politicians should not be passing comment on other faiths' codes of dress.

"It undermines Muslim women. There's very few Muslim women in this country who are afraid to talk about it.

"We don't need Jack Straw initiating debate for us - we don't tell Jack Straw how to dress."


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