London – Britain’s deputy prime minister John Prescott on Sunday rejected an appeal by a cabinet colleague for Muslim women to remove their veils but he welcomed debate on the issue.
Prescott told BBC television that he would have no trouble communicating with a woman wearing a veil. “I think a woman that wants to wear the veil, why shouldn’t she? It’s her choice,” Prescott said.
Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons and former foreign minister, sparked protests from Muslims last week when he revealed that he asks Muslim women to remove veils from their faces when they visit his constituency office.
Straw said he was concerned the veil was a “visible demonstration of separateness,” voicing disquiet over the development of “parallel communities” in Britain.
Prescott suggested his fears were overblown, citing the debate 30 years ago about whether Sikh motorcyclists should be exempt from wearing helmets in Britain because they had to wear their turban. The exemption was granted.
“We heard those arguments (about Sikhs) and common sense prevailed and it wasn’t the great issue we thought it was,” Prescott said.
He said he would not ask a Muslim woman to remove her veil if she visited his office.
“If somebody comes into my constituency whether they are wearing a school cap, or wearing a turban or wearing dark glasses, I’m not going to ask them to remove it. I think you can communicate with them,” he said.
He recalled that once during a visit to India to speak to parliamentarians there, he was invited by his hosts to meet a veiled Muslim woman who was about to get married and she turned out to be a woman from Luton, southern England.
The woman spoke with a typical regional accent and told him she recognized him from his appearances on television.
“It emphasizes just how the migration of movements and cultural differences are now on a global scale, not here, and we need to understand that and we need to understand why people do that, and why they have the choice,” Prescott said.
Prescott praised Straw for opening up debate on the issue.
“But I fear that sometimes people might use it in a more prejudiced way and I’m concerned it may damage relations rather than improve them. But let’s have the debate but the argument can go either way,” he said.