What do I think of the burka and the niqab?
I hate the sight of them. I see them as mobile prisons and their occupants as victimised or deluded. I want to rip them off and bin them.
So much for my liberal credentials, you might say; so much for my belief in the freedom of individuals to do or dress as they please so long as they don't impinge on anyone else's rights. But it's precisely because I believe in freedom and individuality that I loathe the restriction of this form of dress and all it represents.
I look at women walking through this free country of ours with their faces covered and I feel distressed. To me such concealment means oppression. It symbolises the subjugation of women by men. It reminds me there are other countries where women are forced to wear this ancient form of dress on pain of a beating or worse.
I find it odd that any woman could choose to wear it - almost as odd as if I met a man choosing to wear a prison uniform.
In my eyes the black burka represents a walking shroud and a niqab wipes out identity. It renders the wearer faceless. Isn't that imprisonment?
These clothes are the uniform of women in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or Pakistan; women who are inferior in the eyes of their country's law; women who are used as chattels, women who cannot drive or work or have an education, women who have no vote and who risk a face full of acid if they try to break away.
The niqab is in the news. Birmingham Metropolitan College banned it saying staff and pupils should be easily identifiable at all times. It was accused of discrimination against Muslims and backed down.
But Downing Street said the Prime Minister supported the right of institutions like schools, hospitals or the civil service to have a dress code that banned staff from covering their faces. Thank goodness for common sense.
Yesterday at Blackfriars Crown Court in London Judge Peter Murphy ruled that an accused Muslim woman could keep her face hidden in court but must remove her veil when giving evidence.
It was a respectful decision. It offered a nod to religion but held to judicial tradition. The judge and jury needed to see her reactions.
I confess I struggle to understand why any free woman would choose to wear such a thing? And yet there are those who do.
I shouldn't be all that surprised. I was educated in a convent where nuns wore something very similar to a burka. They had a veil but not across their face though a wimple acted like blinkers. They could see only straight ahead.
Along with my school friends I queried why they'd chopped off their hair and swathed themselves in cumbersome garments? Wasn't it enough that they devoted their time to prayer and teaching and never left the convent grounds? "I joined an army," one said to me, "and this is the uniform."
In fact it was the peasant dress of the age when the order was founded. Eventually it was simplified and modernised. But the nuns volunteered to live and dress that way.
When I visited Istanbul some years ago I was struck by the commonality in the great ancient religions. In the screened off areas for women in the mosques, and in the harem of the Topkapi palace, I found echoes of convent life.
Women wearing the hijab reminded me of my mother and her contemporaries covering their heads with a scarf or hat before entering church. And in the far west of Ireland I attended churches where the women entered one door and the men another. Synagogues segregate in this way and married orthodox Jewish women are obliged to cover their hair. So these are ancient traditions, their origins blurred by time.
But in some areas of the world - in too many areas - they have been taken to an extreme and used to oppress women in the modern era. Shouldn't those of us who enjoy more freedom than any women at any time in history be fighting their corner for them? I think so. And part of that fight is surely to resist the spread of these symbols of their subjugation.
I'm delighted that Home Office minister Jeremy Browne is calling for a national debate on the subject. He is particularly keen to "protect" girls from being "compelled to wear face coverings".
He queries whether it is a decision they can properly make before they are old enough to vote or to marry.
France of course has banned the burka and the niqab. In my heart I agree.
To my mind every human being is born with the right to feel the sun on their face and the wind in their hair. In too many places and in too many cultures an entire gender has been denied this. Instead girls and women can only see the world through a mesh grill across their eyes - and the world never gets to see them.
And the reason for this cruelty? They may inflame male lust. It's an insult to both sexes and a crime against women. A terrible, unforgiveable crime.
Yet I would be appalled to see an orthodox Jew stripped of his hat, a vicar robbed of his dog collar or a Sikh forced to ditch his turban and cut his hair. Does that make me anti-Islam? The answer is no. Many moderate Muslims agree with me. I am just pro the rights of women from whichever tradition.
I think some western women who adopt the niqab are conditioned by their religion or conformist in their character. I think some genuinely seek the anonymity it offers but there are less offensive ways to achieve that. Others I simply fail to understand just as I can never comprehend how some women - in the name of their culture - force their daughters into unwanted marriages or (most grievous of all) have them mutilated under the guise of circumcision.
I hear women argue for the right to wear the veil and I wish they would use their energies to give women in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan the right to choose to ditch it.
I worry for the health of those who live in this cloudy climate and deprive themselves of vitamin D by keeping their skin from the sun. I bet there is a measurable dip in their health as a consequence.
But what about freedom of choice? However misguided I think them to be, don't Muslim women here have the right to choose to cover their faces in public?
As the law stands they do and I hear no political will to follow in the footsteps of France. But I hope we get an open and informed debate about where boundary lines are drawn. We already have employers who insist that staff do not wear religious symbols, such as a cross, when at work.
In my youth I was taught, when dealing with the clergy, I should respect the cloth if not the man. When it comes to veiled women I prefer to respect the woman, not the cloth, absolutely not the cloth.
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