I HAVE a confession to make. In columns written in several newspapers over the years, I have, like Boris Johnson, been disrespectful to the burka, the veil and even the niqab.

I have variously described the burka as a potent symbol of patriarchal oppression and a visible attempt to suppress women’s rights by literally excluding them from the public sphere.

But times change. To some people, this bizarre full body tent has now become a symbol of anti-colonialism, a rejection of decadent Western sexist values and the supreme expression of a woman’s right to choose. Disrespecting it is now regarded as Islamophobic. It’s hard to keep up.

Of course, people should be able to wear what they choose, and I’d never argue for the burka to be banned, for that is an unacceptable restriction on personal freedom. But I reserve the right to depart from the current cultural revisionism about this sinister mode of dress.

I can’t help remembering the joy and relief of young women in Afghanistan, more than a decade ago, when they were liberated from the Taliban and were able finally to shed their veils. Can we possibly justify putting them back on?

Many feminists share my abhorrence at seeing women shrouded in darkness. Some believe the burka is the ultimate form of coercive control since it physically prevents women from communicating with others when they are outside the family home. Such women are male property, and only the husband is allowed to see them.

There are still many countries where women are still compelled by law to wear such garments. Some very brave women in Iran have been making public displays of their refusal to wear the hijab, and would be dismayed to learn that the burka is being celebrated in the West.

Now, I don’t think anyone would confuse my view of the world with that of the Tory Brexiter, Boris Johnson, however, I realise that I will now be accused by some people, as he has, of being Islamophobic . He said that women wearing the burka were like “bank robbers” or “walking letter boxes”. These are colourful images, and not I believe racist, though the remarks have ignited an inferno of accusations of Islamophobia, racism and even sexism. Well, I once described seeing women wearing the burqa as like being in the presence of walking ghosts. I still find it disturbing when I see them on the streets of London or Glasgow. I can’t see past the negatives – which places me in uncomfortable company.

I have no wish to offend anyone, and I certainly don’t want to align myself with Tommy Robinson’s EDL, Steve Bannon’s alt-right or Nigel Farage’s Ukip. But some people will claim that any negative views about the burka are a form of racist “dog whistle” – that is, racist virtue-signalling. Many people are determined to take offence at almost anything that is said about ethnic minority groups – be they Jews or Muslims. It has become a kind of semantic warfare where words have lost any real meaning, and even quite innocuous comments are redefined for political purposes as racist.

Is this offence in any way justified? Ironically, these latest accusations of Islamophobia have often come from some of the same people in the Labour Party who’ve been arguing equally vigorously that they should have the right to call Israel a “racist and apartheid state”. I agree with them on that, as it happens. I don’t believe it makes any historical sense to equate contemporary Israel with the Third Reich, but it isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic to describe it as such. It is a political judgement about a regime, not a condemnation of an inferior race. But if it is Islamophobic to disrespect the burka, it is hard for the Left to argue that it’s not anti-semitic to disrespect the Jewish homeland.

And this is of course, why Mr Johnson made his intervention, just when Labour is riven over allegations of anti-Semitism. His article is an example of what is called “trolling” on social media. This involves saying something provocative in order to elicit a response that reveals hypocrisy in your political opponent. He knew that by saying what he did about the burka he would provoke howls of outrage about Islamophobia, which he can use to show that the Left have double standards. See, he says: they’ll do anything to avoid upsetting Muslims, even celebrating the burqa, but they don’t have the same problem about upsetting Jews.

It’s an old trick and too many people have fallen for it. Mr Johnson has been around the block a few times, and knows that feminists have long regarded the burka as an instrument of patriarchy. But here he has apparently got many people who call themselves feminist to start celebrating the veil as an expression of Muslim culture. Ha, he says. What will they be defending next? Women walking three paces behind their husbands?

Well, it could come to that, I suppose. If some women feel that walking behind their husband is an expression of their right to choose, then we would have to accept their right to conduct themselves accordingly. It is, after all, a free country.

I don’t think any form of dress should be illegal, and attempts to make the burka illegal invariably backfire, as in Denmark. But of course, neither did Mr Johnson argue for a ban. The vehement objection to his article was purely because it was seen as disrespectful to Muslims.

And loathe though I am to side with him, I’m afraid that even he is free to criticise. It is not hate speak to disrespect the burka. Feminists have a right to object to the veil, just as they have a right to object to pornography. And before my words are mangled and distorted on social media, let me make it absolutely clear: I’m not comparing the veil to porn. Taking offence has become a national obsession and this is making any sensible discussion about the limits to freedom of speech almost impossible.

Don’t ban the burka, and don’t ban talking about it either.