Jack Straw's Thinly Veiled Abuse of Power
Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)
I am no supporter of the veil. I have grave reservations about women wearing it, and serious disagreements with the allegedly Islamic principles on which the practice is based. But the struggle against this hoary old religious chestnut has to be founded on understanding and reasoned argument. Jack Straw's assault on the niqab, the full-face veil, lacks both. Indeed, I am flabbergasted by the sheer ignorance, simple errors of logic and law, and lack of cultural understanding demonstrated by the former Foreign Secretary.
Straw informs us that a regular stream of Muslim women visit his surgery to be counselled by him. A few come complete with a niqab, which means he can see nothing of their face except their eyes. A series of revelations follow from this simple reality.
First, he informs us that he defends "absolutely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf. As for the full veil, wearing it breaks no laws." But he asks them to remove their niqab. So, Muslim women exercising their democratic right to consult their elected and paid representative, and engaging in perfectly legal behaviour, must defer to the superior power and predilections of Straw. Surely, that is an abuse of power--power exerted over constituents who are in no position to refuse? Isn't this the definition of sexual harassment? As a lawyer by training, Straw ought to know that if any employer behaved that way in the workplace he would be on a fast track to an employment tribunal.
Second, Straw tells us he was "surprised" to learn the women's husbands had played no part in their decision to adopt the niqab. Further, probably with equal surprise since he particularly notes the fact, Straw found that the women did most of the talking about the problems on which he was consulted. So we are dealing with women who are not oppressed and are articulate and intelligent. They have shown tremendous courage in standing up to their men in a highly patriarchal tradition. So, what does Straw do? He orders them to remove their niqab, thus exercising his manly power over them. Once again, a man ends up deciding what is appropriate, acceptable and tolerable for a Muslim woman.
Third, Straw defends his action on the grounds that comprehensive communication can be achieved only by looking someone full in the face. This assumes a universal mode of facial communication. …