I have long since stopped being flabbergasted by George Galloway's statements, but this one really takes the biscuit: "Who does Jack Straw think he is to tell his female constituents that he would prefer they disrobe before they meet him ... For that is what this amounts to. It is a male politician telling women to wear less." Jack Straw's comments may have been wrong (about which more later) but this 'objection' is plainly ridiculous.
Respect describes wearing the veil as 'women choosing to wear what they want', disregarding the possibility that women may not be wearing the veil out of straightforward 'choice' but under pressure. And they give no mention at all to the history and 'justification' for the veil being a horrible, sexist doctrine that women must cover up in order to not provoke men's uncontrollable sexual aggression.
Galloway demands that "Straw should be forced to resign now." I can think of many good reasons why Straw and the rest of his Blairite buddies should resign, but his comments yesterday rank pretty low on the list. A search on its website reveals that Respect called on Blair to resign in April 2004 over the leaked Attorney General's advice on the legality of war in Iraq. I can't find any calls to resign over privatisation, persecution of migrant workers and other immigrants, repeated ignoring of Labour Party conference decisions, retention and use of the anti-union laws, massive job losses in the NHS, etc etc etc.
Some reports suggest that the response to Straw, even amongst Muslims, has been mixed. Galloway's outbursts will tend to stoke up and encourage those who take the most 'hardline' opposition to Straw, including those who are defending not freedom to wear what you like but the right of a religion to impose a dress code on women, and not the rights of Muslims to practise and express their faith but the 'right' of their religion to be beyond criticism.
That said, I don't agree with Straw's comments. His argument that all the women he has asked to remove their veil have done so would be naive if it weren't from such an experienced politician. They've come to see their MP because they've got a problem, for goodness sake, of course they're going to do what you ask! I suspect that few readers of this blog are MPs, but quite a few might be trade union reps, tenants' & residents' reps, or even councillors. If a Muslim woman member/resident/constituent came to see you about a problem, and was wearing a veil, would you ask her to remove it? I wouldn't. Why? Because she's come to see me about a problem and my first priority is that she has confidence that as her rep, I will help with the problem. Somewhere down the line, maybe when she has got more involved in the union or the TRA, there may be a better time to talk about the veil.
This also can not be taken out of context of the anti-Muslim bigotry that does exist in Britain at the moment, illustrated by this appalling campaign of abuse. And it is also in the context of a New Labour government that on the one hand fetes religious leaders and hands over our schools to religious bodies, but on the other drives Asian people into the arms of religious conservatism and/or religious extremism through its wars and its attacks on civil liberties.
Jack Straw says that he would prefer women not to wear the veil at all. I might say something similar, but for different reasons. I'd prefer there not to be religious dress codes based on sexist ideas. Straw, on the other hand, says virtually nothing about sexism, but plenty about what he would prefer. And that's the thing, Mr Straw, this is not about what you personally prefer, it's about opposing bigotry and sexism and supporting women's freedom.
Campaigning to see the end of the veil should not be about politicans in a position of power leaning on individual women to remove the veil. It should be about tackling sexist ideologies, supporting those women who do take the brave stand of refusing the veil, and removing the privileged position that religion holds in our society. In the case of the last of these, in particular, Straw and his New Labour government has done the opposite.
This episode reflects badly on both Respect, whose response is another step down its dangerous road of reintroducing communalism where working-class politics should be, and on New Labour, for creating the political space that makes that possible.
By the way, if I had any grounds to believe that sight of any part of my body would inflame uncontrollable urges from Jack Straw, I would cover myself head to foot in steel-reinforced concrete.