Because he can't see their faces. And it, well, poses a really "visible reminder of our differences".
In addition was Straw's other important point: that veiling is a "statement of separation and difference"; and that it actually is responsible for the creation of parallel Muslim and non-Muslim communities. By putting his words carefully, Straw thus carefully prised open a whole new debate about the niqab/veil, a debate in which it is now perfectly politically correct to demand that Muslim women who wear the veil be forced to take it off.
So here we have yet another white, middle-class male trying to tell a bunch of women how they should live their lives, in particular how they should dress. The logic is the same as those Muslims who believe that forcing women to adhere to some sort of dress-code is justifiable. Both demands are on the same moral scale, and attempt to cut out the very subject of the debate, Muslim women themselves.
On p. 16-17 of the newspaper yesterday, they quoted, very briefly, the views of Sarah, Arzu, and an MPAC spokeswoman Catherine Hossain. I reproduce some excerpts here, so you can get an idea of what Muslim women themselves have to say about this issue (something it seems the rest of the media and others demanding that women stop veiling have little interest in):
Sarah Hussein, a student from Acton, West London, wears a full veil or niqab...: "The last two years have been a nightmare. I have had had abuse thrown at me so many times. When I was growing up I didn't wear a veil and then I made a spiritual decision to wear one -- I have experienced people's reaction to me when I was wearing the veil and when I wasn't, so I know this abuse is because I wear a veil. It is usually from white men in groups and it is when I am alone or with my family. They never say anything when my husband is there. I know it would be easier for me if I didn't wear my veil, but I shouldn't be dictated to as to who I am. I am not doing anything wrong, I am interacting with society and studying society."
Catherine Hossain is a nursery teacher and spokesperson for Ilford MPAC. She wears the hijab: "[Jack Straw] is creating a storm in a tea cup by saying some very 'headline-grabbing' things. I don't think it is far from the truth to say that it is for his own gain -- to become deputy prime minister... Talking about women taking off their veils is not going to help. It suggests that men are more integrated than women when there is no evidence for this."
Arzu Merali, co-author of a recent study into the Muslim community's reaction to veils and headscarfs: "Mr. Straw's abuse of power should not dictate to these women what they should wear. These women go to his surgery and are vulnerable and I suspect that they remove their veil because they feel they have to -- he is a powerful person. There is a perception that Muslim women are pushed around by Muslim men, but what Jack Straw is doing is no better than that. He is a bully."
However, the Independent on Sunday had these "Muslim views" at the bottom of a double-page spread that was taken up largely by a lengthy comment by Joan Smith in which she described how she "loathese the niqab and the burqa" as worn in Iraq and Afghanistan, and finds them "equally offensive on my local high street."
But Smith seems a little out of her depth. I have no doubt that in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Muslim women are forced to veil their face. But there are important caveats. The first is that, in predominantly Shi'ite Iraq especially, it is certainly not mainstream or traditional to wear the full niqab or veil (i.e. facial covering). Some women may choose to wear it. Others may indeed be forced. But the idea that the majority wear the niqab, and are forced to do so, is simply wrong.
However, there is undoubtedly a growing danger of women being forced to wear the head-scarf -- please note, that this practice of wearing a head-covering is also often referred to as "the veil" also, so the term "veil" needs to be properly defined depending on the circumstances. Look at US-occupied Iraq. The BBC reports that "UN officials in Baghdad say they are very concerned that religious extremists are intimidating women and girls into wearing the veil. In particular, some radical clerics have demanded that women -- even Christians -- wear the veil." (The veil referred to here, by the way, refers to the head, not the face). Similarly, The Guardian noted that the US-appointed governing council in Iraq, along with the dominant religious parties including those that now dominate the government, are responsible for climate in which Muslims girls "are being forced to wear the veil again."
I would like you to consider what was happening in 2003, as documented by Human Rights Watch, in western Herat, under the rule of Northern Alliance governor Ismail Khan. Khan was described by the Economist as "The west's favourite warlord", and "As good as it gets." The Economist goes on to praise Khan for promoting "open government" and other such "peaceful and enlightened" social programmes.
Perhaps Khan forgot the meaning of "peaceful and enlightened" when he was involved in what the 2003 annual Human Rights Watch report describes as follows: