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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 October 2006, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Prescott backs right to wear veil
A Muslim woman wearing a veil
John Prescott said he would not ask a woman to remove her veil

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has defended the right of Muslim women to wear veils which cover their faces.

It comes after House of Commons leader Jack Straw sparked a row by saying he asked Muslim women to take off their veils at his constituency surgery.

Mr Prescott told the BBC he would not ask a woman to remove her veil, adding: "If a woman wants to wear a veil, why shouldn't she? It's her choice."

But he said he welcomed the "proper debate" caused by Mr Straw's remarks.

Mr Straw said on Friday he did not want to be "prescriptive" but he believed that covering people's faces could make community relations more difficult.

Mr Prescott, who was interviewed on BBC One's Sunday AM programme, said there should never be "no go" areas for debate.

I do fear when you say you emphasise separation there is a fear in the general public that somehow that shouldn't happen
John Prescott,
Deputy prime minister

He added that his colleague was better placed than anyone else in the Cabinet to discuss the issue due the large number of Muslims in his Blackburn constituency.

The deputy prime minister said he understood the issue of "separateness" raised by the former foreign secretary.

But he said: "I do fear when you say you emphasise separation there is a fear in the general public that somehow that shouldn't happen."

Mr Prescott said veils were a "cultural difference", adding: "If somebody comes into my constituency wearing... a turban or very dark glasses I'm not going to ask them to remove it.

"I think you can communicate with them."

'Fear and resentment'

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt echoed these sentiments, saying that she also would not ask a Muslim women to remove her veil.

The minister admitted that she had, in the past, regarded the veil as a symbol of women's oppression, but said she changed her mind some years ago after meeting a Muslim woman in her Leicester West constituency.

"She'd made the decision - not her parents or anybody else - that she wanted as part of her statement of her faith, to wear the full veil.

If it were an orthodox Jew we'd be outraged if a politician told her how to dress
Miss Sultana, London

"I would not ask her to take that off or to change a decision that she has made as an adult woman."

Meanwhile, Communities and Local Government Minister Phil Woolas has backed Mr Straw, warning that the wearing of full veils could provoke "fear and resentment" and play into the hands of far-right activists.

He said there was a need to "debate this issue" to break a "vicious circle" of misunderstanding between communities.

The minister said there was a need to "explain to people who are fearful of traditional Muslim dress the motives and the contexts of that and explain to the British Muslim people the effects that their actions can have if they are misunderstood".

He said that riots in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley five years ago had taught him that there was a need to discuss faith and race issues.

Some Muslim women called Mr Straw's original remarks insulting, but other Muslims have said they understood his concerns.

Find out about different styles of Muslim headscarf

Speaking on BBC One's Heaven and Earth show, Tahir Alam, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said Jack Straw "ought to be more responsible in making such comments".

He added that it "feeds into the hands of those who have been intolerant of Muslims".

Mr Alam also said that he had received a number of reports of women having their veils pulled off in the last few days.

Meanwhile, Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, the leader of the self-styled Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, said Mr Straw had been right to open the debate on wearing niqabs - the veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear.

Dr Siddiqui said: "This is not a religious issue but a cultural one.

"Mr Straw has opened a debate within the Muslim community. Muslims themselves have failed to create a mechanism to discuss these issues. That is why they have had to be discussed out in the open."

Dr Siddiqui said that less than 5% of Muslim women in the UK wore the niqab.

Mr Straw has dismissed suggestions his remarks were designed to raise his profile ahead of Labour's deputy leadership election.


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