Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 22 October 2006

Straw, the veil and racism

IN THE wake of the horrific 7/7 bombings last year, racist attacks increased by 600%, particularly against Muslims. Now, a year later, another increase in racism is occurring. Incidents have been reported in the press of Muslim women having their veils ripped from their faces as well as a general increase in hostility towards Muslims.

The catalyst for this was Jack Straw's comments on Muslim women who wear the niqab (a full veil covering the whole head apart from the eyes). His comments were supported by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality. Following Straw's remarks a series of ministers have made similar remarks which will undoubtedly further increase racism.

Some commentators have defended Straw's comments by arguing he had a right to his opinion. As socialists, we support the right of everyone to raise criticism of others' beliefs, including their religious beliefs. Nonetheless, Straw was mistaken to raise the issue in the way that he did.

Given his position as an MP, who the women were going to for help, his request will have been interpreted as a demand by many. In addition, he is part of a government responsible for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that in Britain has overseen increased repression, particularly of Muslims. Therefore the fact that he not only asked women to remove their veils, but wrote about it in the press, is inevitably seen by Muslims as an attack on their religion.

Complicated issue

The issue of the veil is complicated for Muslims, non-Muslims, and from the standpoint of socialists and the labour movement. Many people, including many Muslims, feel that the all-encompassing niqab is repressive to women. As socialists we stand for the right of women to choose what they wear without facing discrimination or repression as a result. This includes the right to wear the niqab in most circumstances.

Phil Woolas MP's comments were completely wrong, when he publicly called for the sacking of a classroom assistant for insisting on wearing the niqab in front of male members of staff, as was Blair's intervention supporting her suspension.

Nonetheless, the teaching of young children while wearing a niqab is a particular circumstance where the rights of the children must take precedence, so the wearing of a niqab might not be appropriate.

However, where a teacher or classroom assistant is willing to remove her niqab if no adult males are present, as appeared to be so in the case mentioned above, the school should attempt to accommodate her wishes without jeopardising the interests of the children concerned.

A very small minority of Muslim women in Britain wear the niqab and their reasons for doing so vary. Some are recent immigrants from countries where it is common. Others view it as a statement of solidarity with their religion; the number of young women in this category has increased markedly in the last few years, because they have felt their religion to be under attack. Jack Straw's comments will lead to more, not fewer, women choosing to wear the niqab in protest at New Labour's attitude.

There are other reasons why Muslim women wear the niqab. Some reluctantly accept it because then they are allowed greater freedom by their families to study and move freely outside the home. Others are horrified by the pressure that British society puts on young women to dress in a certain way (to wear skimpy clothes etc) and see the veil as a certain protection. Some are pressured into wearing it by their families.

As socialists, we stand just as much for the right of women to choose not to wear the headscarf or niqab as to choose to wear them. However, politicians coming out 'against' the niqab, or it being banned as is the case at Imperial University, will do nothing to assist those women who are wearing it not through choice, but due to family or societal pressure. On the contrary, a situation of heightened prejudice against Muslims will tend to force Muslim communities to turn inward and will make it more difficult, not easier, for women to stand up against oppression.

If the ban on the niqab becomes general in universities the result will be that women from families where it is considered a necessity will be prevented from attending university.

In any case, any attempt by the government to dress up their views on Muslim women as concern for women's rights is blatant hypocrisy when the effects of government policy on fundamental issues affecting women such as low pay, health care and domestic violence are considered.

Government agenda

It is not a coincidence that so many different government ministers are singing the same tune. However, the reason has far more to do with New Labour's slide in the polls, and the leadership ambitions of various New Labour politicians, than it does with how Muslim women dress or, as New Labour claim they are attempting, encouraging the Muslim community to 'root out the extremists in their midst'.

The current onslaught will do nothing to cut across what New Labour calls 'extremism'. The vast majority of Muslims in Britain completely oppose the profoundly mistaken methods of terrorism. However, there is a tiny but growing minority who are prepared to support, or even taken part in, terrible attacks like 7/7. Their numbers have grown, not as a result of the actions of the 'Muslim community,' but because of the profound anger and alienation they feel because of New Labour's wars of occupation and the increased discrimination they face here in Britain.

The latest ratcheting-up of racism by the government will only increase the anger and alienation felt by many young Muslims, and increase the size of the tiny minority willing to take the mistaken road of terrorism.

Traditionally, playing the race card was a tactic of the Tories - often under a Labour government. Now it is New Labour which is starting to accommodate itself to anti-Muslim prejudices - a dangerous game. Frightened of being undermined by the Tories and, in some areas by the far-right, they are echoing some of their sentiments.

The statements made, and the baying they have produced in the right-wing press, can only make it easier for far-right, racist organisations, like the British National Party, to gain support.

Socialists defend the rights of Muslims, and all ethnic minorities, against racism and attacks on their democratic and religious rights. At the same time we explain to the working class as a whole that it is not in their interests to allow New Labour to whip up racism and division. The attacks on democratic rights being introduced under the guise of 'fighting terror', including the latest sweeping assault on the rights of students, will be used in the future against the left and the workers' movement. Already anti-terror legislation has been used against peaceful anti-arms trade protesters.

Ruth Kelly, in charge of the Orwellian sounding 'Commission for Integration and Cohesion' has publicly stated that the government would only fund and engage with Muslim organisations that are, "taking a pro-active leadership role in tackling extremism and defending our shared values". But the majority of working-class people in Britain do not share New Labour's values.

New Labour 'values' include the brutal occupation of Iraq and a headlong rush to privatise public services. More than 70% of the population has different values - and opposes any further sell-off of public services.

New Labour is unpopular because it has carried out consistently pro-big business, anti-working class policies - a diet of cuts, privatisation and war. While attacking working-class people they disguise their policies by claiming that, as Blair put it, "we are all middle-class now". Straw even went so far as to suggest that religion rather than class is now the "great divide" in society.

In reality, social class remains the major division. The gap between rich and poor in Britain today is wider than at any time under Margaret Thatcher and Muslim workers are, on average, amongst the lowest-paid strata of the working class. Two-thirds of children from British families of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin grow up in poverty.

The workers' movement has to stand against the prejudice being whipped up by New Labour at the same time as campaigning amongst Muslim workers for a united struggle against low pay and racism.

Why not click here to join the Socialist Party, or click here to donate to the Socialist Party.

In The Socialist 22 October 2006:

March to save the NHS

The battle to defend the health service

Whitewashing New Labour's NHS policies

Socialist Party Marxist analysis

Straw, the veil and racism

Socialism 2006


War and terrorism

Troops out of Iraq

Iraq workers strike

North Korea's nuclear test ratchets up regional tensions

Iran and the nuclear bomb

Journalist's murder reveals brutality of Putin regime

Killing overshadows developing conflict between Russia and Georgia

Socialist Party review

The Communist Manifesto

Socialist Students

Build Socialist Students!

London Socialist Students

Fighting for socialist ideas


Home   |   The Socialist 22 October 2006   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate  

Related links:


triangleA mass, trade union-led, socialist anti-racist campaign can defeat the far right

triangleStand up against abuse - justice not racism

trianglePittsburgh Synagogue shootings: Unite to fight anti-Semitism and far right

triangleGermany: Bavarian elections and huge anti-racist demonstration mark an historic weekend

triangleDemo against far-right DFLA


triangleJohnson's burqa outburst highlights racist Tory hypocrisy

triangleSarkozy instigates ban on veil to boost his political ratings


triangleCaerphilly Socialist Party: The origins of discrimination against women

triangleLeeds: Women's Lives Matter national meeting

triangleEqual pay uprising shows power of working class


triangleMobilise to stop bigoted billionaire Donald Trump's state visit to Britain

triangleFinsbury Park attack: No to terror, racism, war and austerity!

Muslim women:

triangleFrance: Burkini ban fuels division


triangleProtesters drive far right out of Liverpool


triangleThe ongoing capitalist crisis and the struggle for a socialist world

Jack Straw:

triangleBritish state complicit in torture and rendition: put Blair and Straw in the dock!


triangleNHS pay discrimination - militant union action can achieve fair pay for all


triangle15 years since the invasion of Iraq: what we said


triangleThem & us


triangleAnother victory against NHS privatisation

News and socialist analysis

News and socialist analysis



Tories Out! General election Now!



NHS Tayside facing massive job cuts



A mass, trade union-led, socialist anti-racist campaign can defeat the far right



Tories out now to save our NHS


Grenfell Tower

Grenfell - no more cover-ups!



Major private care operator puts thousands of vulnerable people at risk



Socialism 2018



Tories out - we need socialism!



Care crisis cashing in



Stand up against abuse - justice not racism



University bankruptcy threat - kick the market out of education



Labour councils should use 14bn reserves to fight all cuts



Homelessness, Universal Credit misery, high rents, cramped flats, isolated estates...end the housing crisis!


Climate change

60% of wildlife wiped out - urgent action needed to save planet



Philip Green scandal - bring him down like BHS

triangleMore News and socialist analysis articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777


Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 0798 202 1969

East Mids: 0773 797 8057

London: 020 8988 8786

North East: 0784 114 4890

North West 07769 611 320

South East: 020 8988 8777

South West: 07759 796 478

Southern: 07833 681910

Wales: 07935 391 947

West Mids: 02476 555 620

Yorkshire: 0114 264 6551



Alphabetical listing

November 2018

October 2018

September 2018

August 2018

July 2018

June 2018

May 2018

April 2018

March 2018

February 2018

January 2018