CAIRO — A second British government minister joined on Sunday, October 8, a wave of criticism against Muslim face veil, despite growing protests from cabinet colleagues and warnings from rights activists that the campaign might develop to include hijab.
"Most British-born Muslims who wear it, do so as an assertion of their identity and religion. This can create fear and resentment among non-Muslims and lead to discrimination," Race Relations Minister Phil Woolas said in an article for the Sunday Mirror newspaper.
Woolas — whose responsibilities include community cohesion, race and faith — backed former foreign secretary Jack Straw's decision to trigger the debate, which has raged since Thursday, October 5.
"Muslims then become even more determined to assert their identity, and so it becomes a vicious circle where the only beneficiaries are racists like the British National Party," he wrote in an article titled "Why Jack's Got it Right"
Straw, now leader of the House of Commons, had argued that face cover made it harder for Muslims to integrate and that he preferred talking to constituents face to face, often asking Muslim women to show their otherwise covered faces.
Demonstrators have protested in Straw's constituency of Blackburn in northwest England: a working-class, industrial town with a large Muslim minority.
Admitting that Muslim women who cover their faces have every right to do so, Woolas said "they must realize that other people who don't understand the culture can find it frightening and intimidating."
"While people are free to do what they want, they must realize that their actions often have an impact on others."
Abeer Pharaon, the ex-chair and incumbent member of the London-based Assembly for the Protection of Hijab (Protect Hijab), took an issue with the argument.
"This is completely false," she told IslamOnline.net over the phone from London.
"It is the choice of a woman to take on the niqab, which is not a way to threat or attack the other.
"The niqab does not relate to the other but to myself," added Pharaon, who herself does not wear a face cover.
The Muslim activist also question Straw's argument that face cover prevents interaction with the other.
"I myself believe that facial expression are important, but the heart of the face is the eyes," she said.
Pharaon feared that the campaign is a prelude to ban hijab in state schools and institutions in Britain.
"The French hijab ban started with a ferocious campaign against the niqab and talks about community cohesion like what is taking place right now in Britain," she asserted.
France has triggered a controversy in 2004 by adopting a bill banning hijab in state schools.
French Muslims — a sizeable six-million minority — and international human rights watchdogs condemned the law as a violation of religious freedom in secular France.
Islam sees hijab as an obligatory code of dress, not a religious symbol displaying one’s affiliations.
As for the face veil, the majority of Muslim scholars believe that a woman is not obliged to cover her face or hands.
Several British cabinet ministers publicly distanced themselves from the position of Straw and Woolas, while Muslim leaders feared the remarks would fan discrimination against and attacks on Muslims.
Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, said she saw the dress code as a " personal choice" and would not ask a woman who sought her advice to remove it, The Independent newspaper reported Sunday.
Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who is expected to run against Straw to become deputy leader of the Labour Party, said women should be entitled to cover the face if they chose.
"I believe that women, like everybody else, are entitled to dress as they choose to dress," he said on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions.
Shahid Malik, Labour MP for Dewsbury, said the country's Muslims were braced for further attacks in a deteriorating climate of fear and suspicion.
"I think Jack may have unleashed forces more negative and corrosive than he anticipated," said Malik.
"I think there is a growing feeling among Muslims in Britain that something has got to give. They are genuinely fearful of attack."
A woman's veil was torn from her face by a man shouting racist abuse in Liverpool on Friday, October 6, a day after Straw's remarks.