Jack Straw memoirs - day 5: 'I was warned against it, but I'm glad I wrote veil column' (From Lancashire Telegraph)
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Jack Straw memoirs - day 5: 'I was warned against it, but I'm glad I wrote veil column'
IN the final part of our five-day serialisation of Jack Straw’s autobiography Last Man Standing he tells how one of his columns for this newspaper sparked a world-wide debate on the wearing of the veil . . .
If you represent an area like Blackburn, you have a responsibility to be alive to what people are thinking, what are the rubbing points in relationships between these differing communities, separated by cultures, and faith, too many living parallel lives.
I talked to my many Muslim friends about it, and in particular about the increasing use of the full veil by some women in town. Only a small minority, I conceded, but enough for people to notice, and to worry about.
I told them that I was reflecting not just the concern of other white people, but my own feelings. I found it difficult properly to relate to people whose faces I could not see. I couldn’t quite understand why this practice was increasing since there was no clear instruction in the Koran for women’s faces to be covered – certainly not in my well-regarded translation.
Iqbal Sacranie, the president of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), and a personal friend, had invited me to speak in June 2006 at an Islamic trade and economics conference.
Answering a question, I went ‘wildly off script’ and gave a wider audience to the views about the veil which had been bubbling up in my brain for some months. There were a number of journalists present, mainly from the Islamic world, some with TV cameras. Not one word of what I said was reported.
Four months later I went to Brussels to make a speech. Shortly after the Eurostar had left Brussels I remembered that I had to write my weekly column for the Lancashire Telegraph.
Suddenly I thought – ‘I know, I’ll write about the veil. I tried it out at that MCB conference, and no one batted an eyelid, so it will be safe.’ The trigger was an interview I’d had at a constituency advice ‘surgery’ the year before.
‘It’s really nice to see you face to face, Mr Straw,’ this pleasant lady said to me in a broad Lancashire accent. ‘The chance would be a fine thing,’ I thought to myself.
She was wearing a full veil.
I didn’t say anything at the time. Later I decided that when a lady next turned up in a full veil I’d explain that the meeting would be of greater value if I could see her face – seeing what someone means is better than just hearing what they say.
I said as much in the article. I reminded readers that women had their heads uncovered the whole time they were on their hajj – pilgrimage – in Mecca. I concluded by saying that ‘the veil was bound to make better relations between the two communities more difficult. It was such a visible statement of separation and difference.
My special advisers warned me that it would be a big story – ‘No, it won’t,’ I kept saying. ‘Don’t worry. It may get a bit of local coverage, but nothing more.’ They were right; I was wrong. The Lancashire Telegraph ran it on their front page, and whoosh, it went international.
I have never before or since had such coverage for an opinion I’ve expressed. The veil dominated the news for two days and was a media ‘talking point’ for a week. Eight days after the article had first appeared, I was back in Blackburn and tried to have a ‘normal’ constituency day, but it proved impossible.
I was followed around by a large press pack, including a Japanese TV crew who were broadcasting, live, from the car park of the Mill Hill Community Centre. There were demonstrations by veiled women outside the advice centres.
Many of my close Muslim friends felt hurt that I’d taxed their loyalty to me again – and exposed them to further taunts that they were Straw toadies.
There was also the cultural fact of life that within our Asian communities there can sometimes be the most alarming eruption of strong collective emotions. I had witnessed these before, during the Salman Rushdie protests in 1989. I would do so again when I spoke about the sexual grooming of white girls by some Pakistani men.
Some Asian women still wear the veil in Blackburn, including some who come to see me for advice. Some remove their veil; some don’t. I’m glad that on that October Tuesday, faced with a blank sheet, a blank mind, and a deadline, my brain engaged and I wrote that column.
Jack 'the Cad' left Condo floored
ABOVE: Jack Straw with Condoleezza Rice at Ewood Park
AS Foreign Secretary Jack Straw became friends with his American counterpart Condoleezza Rice and after she invited him to her home state of Alabama he returned to favour by bringing her to Blackburn in March 2006 . . .
Security had not been a problem in Alabama but it was in Lancashire. Anti-war feeling had run high. It was strong among many in the white community, and intense in part of the Muslim community.
There were the inevitable protests including a large one outside Blackburn’s town hall. But the town as a whole was delighted that she’d taken the trouble to visit.
Some of the councillors and Muslim leaders had decided to boycott the visit, which was daft. They missed an extraordinary, private session which Condi held in the Council Chamber with a large group of Asian men and women.
The men, as ever, tried to dominate proceedings, with questions about Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. Then one of the women invited the men to stop hogging the questions. The session took on a magical quality, as a serious discussion broke out about how women from minorities could break through, and the audience suddenly realized that they had much more in common with this black woman who been brought up in a racist state than they had ever imagined.
I had intended that Condi should come with me to that weekend’s Rovers game. Mr Murdoch put paid to that. Sky moved the game to the Monday. Instead, we visited the ground, where Condi met her fellow American, our great goalkeeper Brad Friedel.
After a visit to Liverpool I was driven to John Lennon Airport, where I boarded Condi’s plane, unnoticed.
We were going to Baghdad.
I was completely knackered, and looked it. Condi very kindly offered me the bed in her cabin, and said she had somewhere else to sleep. I accepted with gratitude.
I should have listened more carefully; ‘somewhere else’ was the floor; it led to some interesting press stories about what a cad I’d been in taking Condi’s bed.
- © Jack Straw 2012 – Extracted from Last Man Standing, published by Macmillan. Readers can order copies of Last Man Standing by Jack Straw from The Silverdell bookshop, 61 Poulton Street, Kirkham, PR4 2AJ (phone 01772 68344 or email email@example.com) and get £4 off the rrp of £20 and free postage.