Frode pointed me to this interesting letter in the (printed edition) of today's Independent. At the very least it would seem to indicate that Jack Straw is in good company, as Allah Himself also prefers women to take their veils off in his constituency consulting room:
"Sir: I am not sure what the furore is about the veil. There is no such thing as a Muslim veil. A veil is a piece of cloth some women use to cover their face. It has nothing to do with religion. During the pilgrimage in Mecca the women are forbidden to cover their face or wear a veiled ihram the pilgrimage robe. (Ha-dith al Bukhari 25:23). Women offering prayers, whether in private or in a mosque, should uncover the hands and face.
"There is no injunction in the Quran stating that women should cover their face. All that the Quran says (Surah XXIV, verses 30 and 31) is that both men and women "should lower their gaze and guard their modesty". Working women, whether as domestics or in public, in most countries where there is a large Muslim population, have of necessity to work unveiled.
The veil is a cultural norm, a custom in some countries. It is claimed by those who do not know, or who do not wish to know, that it is the religion of Islam which prescribes that women should be veiled. This has never been so. "
AL-HAJ ISMAIL CHOONARA