Dr Bano Murtuja told Socialist Worker that she doesn’t normally wear the niqab (face veil), but was wearing it as a protest. “I am disgusted that our MP Jack Straw is pandering to the right wing,” she said.
“If, as constituency MP since 1979, he hasn’t learned to become more comfortable with the way Muslims choose to express themselves, then what message is he sending out?
“I thought that we had got beyond the debate about a woman’s right to choose in this country.
“It appears that some women have the right to choose but not other women. Muslim women have the responsibility for cohesion in society!
“Essentially the message that Straw is sending out is that it is detrimental to community relations for Muslims to have their own identity and for Muslim women to make that choice. But the government should look at its own policies to see what separates communities.
“We communicate in lots of ways - through voice, though body language. I would equate Straws comments with someone who says, ‘I read a women from her chest, so she needs to remove her top’.”
Yaasmine Mubarak said, “Jack Straw’s comments were disgraceful. Is there no limit to how much this man can talk down to people - the people who elected him?
“Straw talks about community cohesion, but surely that involves accepting diversity and respecting whatever people choose to wear. Blackburn is a diverse place and people need to understand and respect that.
“It is simply not true that you need to see someone’s face to have a conversation with them. We have a lot of important conversations on the phone. On demonstrations I have seen many women wearing full veils have interesting and important discussions with other activists.
“Straw talks about face-to-face discussions. We wanted to have discussions about the war on Iraq - but Straw didn’t want to have those face-to-face.
“He talks about unveiling faces. What about unveiling the truth - why we went to war in Iraq. Straw doesn’t listen to us. If he did, he wouldn’t have invited Condoleezza Rice to Blackburn. We didn’t want her here.
“I am not just protesting because this is an attack on Muslim women. I would protest whatever women were being told what they could and couldn’t wear. It’s an attack on our human rights.”
Kulsum Patel said, “The government is coming out with rhetoric like this all the time - it is Islam bashing.
“Straw wants our votes - he comes to our mosques and expects us to shake his hand. This time though it is personal. Attacking Muslim women is atrocious. It is perverted to ask a woman in his office to remove her veil.”
Noorjahan Patel, a student from Blackburn, said, “What Jack Straw has done is divisive. And it hurts. We have human rights. We have choices. We make our own decisions.
“No one has asked me to wear the niqab - I choose to wear it. For me it is part of my religion. I don’t want to be dictated to by Jack Straw about what I can wear.
“How would nuns feel - and I have a great deal of respect for them - if they were told to take off their head scarves?
“What makes a diverse community is the fact that we are all different, and that we can come together regardless of our background and understand each other. That is the challenge. Otherwise we would all be like robots - human robots - is that what he wants?”
Abdul Patel, a Labour councillor in Little Harwood ward in Blackburn, told Socialist Worker that he is angry with the government. “They told lies and lies again - over Afghanistan, over Iraq, over weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
“I am very disappointed with Jack Straw - I have helped him for 20 years. Why is he talking about the veil now? Is it because of disaffected white voters? Is it a divide and rule policy?
“Or is it because Jack Straw wants to be the deputy prime minister and he wants to show that he is tougher than John Reid? If that is the case, that is a disgraceful reason to divide our communities here in Blackburn.”
Mohammed Sabir, a Blackburn resident who joined the protest said, “We are the people who have been fighting for community cohesion - for mixing and integration.
“People like Straw are dividing it. This is creating racism across Britain. Already we have seen a woman in Liverpool having her veil taken off her at a bus stop.”
Khadija came to the protest from Preston. She had marched two weeks before on the Stop the War demonstration in Manchester. “The war has definitely increased attacks on Muslims,” she said.
“In the newspapers, it’s about Muslims all the time. They want to focus on it, to get Muslims into the headlines.
“I believe it is my feminist right to dress like this. I shouldn’t be judged on how I look, or by the dimensions of my body.”
Jennifer Wilkinson from Burnley told the rally, “I support a woman’s right to choose. Jack Straw says that we shouldn’t dress in a way that makes him uncomfortable. Well I have an anti war T-shirt on - I hope that makes him uncomfortable.”
Michael Lavalette, Respect councilor from Preston, also spoke at the rally. “Jack Straw is creating an atmosphere of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism in this country,” he said.
“Every night last week, I have been with other members of Respect outside the mosque in Preston, which has been facing racist attacks.
“You have the right to wear what you want to. It is very important for everyone to stand up for freedom and justice. We must stand together against racism.
“We will not put up with the criminalisation of Muslims.”