I can see Mick Hartley's point - that being veiled is 'an affront to an unspoken understanding that in public places, where people interact, you should be able to read their faces'. We so take it for granted that the face, whether window to the soul or not, is the main way in which we present ourselves to others, that it isn't surprising if some feel uncomfortable interacting with a person whose face is hidden. But, despite this, I think Mike Marqusee is right here:
Like Jack Straw, I find it awkward to talk with women who veil their faces. Unlike Jack Straw, I don't assume that the onus is on them to relieve me of my discomfort, or that this discomfort is inevitable and entrenched, or that it betokens an unbridgeable cultural gap or irreconcilable social difference.Marqusee goes on to give other examples of discomfort from social interaction; and says that, within certain limits concerning obvious harm, 'governments [should] refrain from lecturing the population about the rightness or wrongness of religious practices'. Isn't that the key thing? It's not what you may or may not be comfortable with. It's what business politicians have telling people how they should dress. I know it isn't quite the same, but these days we interact with others all the time without being able to see their faces, and we manage it.
Postscript at 3.40 PM: Wardytron expresses the extraordinary view that '[c]hoosing how you dress in Jack Straw's office isn't really a basic freedom'. I'd say it is, yes. Within limits - to do either with a certain formality or with observing rules of decency - I don't think Jack Straw or any public official is entitled to require of others entering their offices how they should dress. Could they legitimately say: no turbans, no yarmulkes, shoes but no socks, etc? I don't think so.