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Last Updated: Sunday, 5 November 2006, 00:24 GMT
How veil remarks reinforced its support
By Nasreen Suleaman
BBC News

A Muslim woman wearing a veil
The Hijab Centre has seen a rise in the number of veils sold

A month after ex-foreign secretary Jack Straw suggested that Muslim women who wear veils over their face can make community relations harder, what do people within the Muslim community in the UK think of his remarks?

Jack Straw's comments on veils have been good news for the owner of The Hijab Centre in the MP's constituency of Blackburn.

Nadeem Siddiqui tells me he is selling more veils than he did before his local MP made his controversial remarks.

Mr Siddiqui is the largest seller of veils in the area.

"I used to sell two or three a week but now I am selling five to six. They are mainly being bought by young, British-born Muslim women," he said.

"These women are experimenting with the wearing of the niqab. Their mothers often do not cover themselves but they seem to want to do it."

It is probably not the impact that Mr Straw intended when he wrote in his local newspapers that he felt uncomfortable when dealing face to face with veiled women.

Future fears

The majority of Muslims condemned Mr Straw over his comments. One month later, they are still upset.

The woman who covers her face is the most harmless individual in society. She ... does not cause society any problems
Na'ima B Roberts

"I voted for Mr Straw at the last election" says Mr Siddiqui.

"I'm now reconsidering my support for him. Most of the people around here are doing the same because of what he said about the veil".

British Muslims do not accept the argument that veiled women contribute to segregation or are a barrier to integration.

Instead they feel they are being deliberately stigmatised as a problem community and are fearful of the future.

The author Na'ima B Roberts has written about her experiences as a veiled woman in her book From My Sister's Lips.

"I fear that this could change everything in Britain and this country will become like France and ban the veil," she said.

"The woman who covers her face is the most harmless individual in society. She doesn't drink; she doesn't smoke and does not cause society any problems."

Muslim unity

The wearing of the veil has always been a controversial practice and there is no consensus amongst Islamic scholars.

Find out about different styles of Muslim headscarf

There are roughly two schools of thought, one which says that it is obligatory and another that believes it is highly recommended but ultimately a matter of personal choice.

Mr Straw's intervention and the ensuing political storm have changed all that.

It now appears that British Muslims are less willing to publicly criticise those tiny minority of women who wear it.

A recent statement issued by nearly 30 Islamic groups, including one of the largest Muslim organisations - the Muslim Council of Britain, tells Muslims to "remain united, regardless of their differences of opinion in the wearing of the veil ... and to defend the veil with all their ability".

It also asks them to "avoid seeking to capitalise on this debate to further political or personal interests".

This statement has annoyed some Muslims but they are now choosing to remain silent.

They think it is open season on Muslims and do not want to be seen damaging the community anymore by offering support to the anti-veil lobby.

Veil encouragement

The case of Aishah Azmi, the Dewsbury teacher who was suspended after refusing to take her veil off in the classroom, resulted in an even more ambivalent response from British Muslims.

Jack Straw
Mr Straw's comments seems to have reinforced support for the veil

Even if they disagree with Jack Straw they are unwilling to offer their wholehearted support to Mrs Azmi.

"If I couldn't wear the niqab and teach then I wouldn't do that job" says Na'ima B Roberts.

"I don't go into a line of work where I have to uncover. I wouldn't, for example go for the title of Miss Great Britain," she said.

At the Hijab Centre in Blackburn they recently had a visit from an eight-year-old girl, Mr Siddiqui recalls.

"She wanted to buy a veil and she was arguing with me for 15 minutes. I told her she was too young to be wearing one and in the end we convinced her to wear the hijab.

"The girl's mother didn't even wear a hijab and she told me that she had spent three days convincing her that she doesn't need one".

It seems that rather then discouraging women from wearing the veil Mr Straw has elevated its importance. We can probably expect to see more women in veils, not fewer.

Why Muslim women wear the veil
05 Oct 06 |  Middle East

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