“This has been a real test of Labour politicians. It is the first time in years that there has been a hard choice about women’s rights – and many failed miserably. Here is a conflict between two principles – respect for a religious minority and respect for women’s equality…. When it comes to something as basic as women hidden from view behind religious veils, is it really so hard to say this is a bad practice? Because some racists may jump on the bandwagon to attack Muslims, that’s no reason to pretend veils are OK….
“The veil turns women into things. It was shocking to find on the streets of Kabul that invisible women behind burkas are not treated with special respect. On the contrary, they are pushed and shoved off pavements by men, jostled aside as if almost subhuman without the face-to-face contact that recognises common humanity.
“The classroom assistant in a Church of England school in Kirklees removed her veil for a job interview, but now expects to go veiled in corridors or whenever she might meet a man. What does that say to children about the role of women as victims and men as aggressors? Of course it should be banned in all places of education, and the community cohesion minister is the right person to say so. The veil is profoundly divisive – and deliberately designed to be….
“Prescott, Hewitt, Kelly, Hain and others failed the test, saying it was women’s ‘choice’: can they really believe that’s the whole story? Here is an uneasy blend of nervousness about racism and fear of already angry Muslims. It was left to Harriet Harman to make the unequivocal case for women’s rights: ‘If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it,’ she said. ‘The veil is an obstacle to women’s participation on equal terms in society.’ No nonsense about choice.”
Polly Toynbee in the Guardian, 17 October 2006