WE ARE on the wrong track if we believe that veils are a religious issue. They're not. Like fat, they're a feminist issue. The clothes that women wear, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, are a powerful political statement about where they're at; about the amount of freedom, self-esteem or independence they possess.

The veil which covers the face, the niqab, is an enormously potent symbol of subjugation to a (malecontrolled) religion. It is what Muslim men want. It is about control of women; about forced chastity. The veil sends out a very clear message that the woman behind it abides by the conventions of the Muslim faith; that she places the approval of men above her own self-expression.

The veil, and the full-length gown, the jilbab, is a form of dress that deliberately makes women undesirable by hiding their form and their features. It desexualises and disempowers; worse still, it implies that women must cover up to prevent tempting men, thereby removing from men any need to take responsibility for their actions.

We in the West should be familiar with such an argument: we hear it in almost every rape case that reaches court. She was showing her body. She was asking for it. It was her fault I raped her. This is a game of sexual politics as old as the hills. Women's clothes have always been used by men as an excuse - or as a form of ownership and control. Throughout history, women's clothes have been about imprisonment: excruciating bodices, floorlength skirts, tight waists, long trains. Each was a fashion designed to victimise; to trap women as tortured objects of male fantasy, creatures unable to enjoy physical freedoms - to run or jump or fill their lungs with air.

Look at Chinese females, who once bound their feet in pursuit of the tiny child-like appendages which their menfolk found sexually attractive, and were left permanently crippled as a result. Oh yes, this is fashion all right, Guantanamo Bay style.

In the West, the parallels between the liberation of the female form and the liberation of women politically are fascinating. During the twentieth century, skirts grew shorter and waists got looser as women found empowerment and got the vote. Then they took to putting on trousers, a move that for decades was resisted as improper at the highest levels: even within the last 10 years we have seen relics of this attitude in industrial tribunals for women banned from wearing trouser suits at work. Why? Because, whatever other excuse they give, men from a certain traditional school of power found them threatening.

Now, of course, women's dress is largely de-formalised and de-regulated. The ownership has been returned to women with a vengeance. If the onset of feminism meant that women could wear whatever they chose - they could flaunt their sexuality with miniskirts and high heels or they could claim male territory with dungarees and big boots - then post-modern feminism has brought a period where anything goes, including the right to look fairly ghastly by virtue of rolls of exposed flesh hanging over too-tight trousers.

We may not particularly admire today's let-it-all-hang-out, in-yerface look, but we can certainly acknowledge a woman's right to espouse it, and the long, hard-won struggle past generations have been through to get there.

Ah, say Muslim women: but we have the right to choose too. If we choose to be modest, and wear the veil and the jilbab, then it is up to us. You have no right to tell us what to do.

And indeed we don't. No-one, least of all Jack Straw, is actually telling anyone not wear veils. He's merely questioning the wisdom of doing so in a society where they are recognised as divisive.

But what we can say is that with that choice comes the need for hardnosed street savvy. Women should indeed be free to wearwhat they like, but any female who ventured out late at night, alone, in a rough area, wearing a mini-skirt and high heels, clacking along like a tethered antelope, would be very unwise.

Similarly, a woman who retreats behind a full veil in a culture where the veil is increasingly seen as a political weapon is also being less than wise. Women who wear veils are being manipulated by men, and they need to be aware of that.

When religions are run by men (and show me one that isn't) all the evidence points to the fact that they will use anything they can - dress, custom or theology - to subjugate women and control their sexuality. They want to remove individuality. Their end game is symbolised in the anonymity of the nun's habit or the burqa. They want women as submissive, unseen and unheard as possible.

It is high time women resisted being patronised as some collective mass. A survey by the think-tank Civitas has warned of the creation of Britain's "victimocracy", in which 73per cent of people are members of officially recognised "victim groups", including all women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities. Were I a Muslim, this patronising nonsense would be enough to make me throw off my veil in an instant.

TV birth? It's a relief

The National Childbirth Trust has been up in arms at Channel Five's screening of the first live birth on British television. Birth Night Live, which was broadcast on Sunday, followed a group of expectant mothers, cameras hovering expectantly at the business end.

The NCT fear too much of this kind of reality television will be a bad thing. They are worried that women will be scared off pregnancy by the mess, swearing and bodily functions (and that's just the midwives) which go along with childbirth.

But to be honest, the reality came as a relief. Giving birth grants every woman the chance to star in her own soap opera, and it is far better to witness the real thing than be terrorised by someone who wants to share the intimate details of their own 48-hour labour without painkillers, being cut open and forgoing sex ever since. Take it from me. Whilst pregnant I got trapped in the ladies' loo by one such, and I have never really recovered.