Mary Kenny: Ban the burqa -- and bring us back to the Middle Ages
So Britain will not follow France down the parliamentary path of legally banning the burqa, the Islamic form of dress that covers virtually every part of a woman's body, with only a visor for her eyes.
There is undoubtedly, in Britain as in Ireland, a groundswell of popular support for the ban, both for practical and for feminist reasons. It is argued that in many professions, from teaching to hairdressing, you need to see a woman's face properly when engaging in any conversation or transaction.
Many feminists say the burqa is an instrument of the oppression of women and a "manifestation of misogyny", and thus should be prohibited. But there is also a xenophobic undertone to the anti-burqa lobby: such dress is seen as the rig-out of "bloody foreigners". Why should they be coming over here and imposing their weird/backward appearance on us represents that line of thinking.
It is true that if you take a bus through various neighbourhoods of London -- any public transport moving towards Stepney and Brick Lane, any bus that passes through Holloway -- you will at one stage in the journey be noticeably outnumbered by women who look as though they are in a particularly sombre order of nuns: they may not be wearing the full burqa, but they are all clothed in swirls of black Islamic garments: either the abaya (full-length cloaks) or niqabs (face veils).
South Kensington -- nicknamed "Saudi Kensington" -- presents a similar picture, except that there, the ladies are too grand to go by bus.
If you are a white woman of northern European stock, you will come to feel you are in a distinct minority, and however tolerant you are in theory, being so visibly outnumbered feels threatening.
The French ban of the burqa went through the Assemblee Nationale with almost full parliamentary support -- only one deputy voted against it -- and it will now pass into law. We shall see what reaction follows -- the ban could inflame Islamic feeling against the French state.
There is previous form in French tradition when it comes to regulations about "religious" manifestations in public life. The crucifix, or any religious image, is banned in French state schools, because of the state's commitment to secularism.
Nevertheless, there are inconsistencies in this French state secularism: unlike Ireland, or Britain, the French have not done away with the rhythm of the Christian calendar -- Pentecost, Ascension, All Saints' Day -- have not been turned into "spring/summer/autumn" bank holidays, but retain their full Christian associations.
In Britain, the Liberal-Conservative administration has made it clear that banning any form of dress is, as a spokesman loftily puts it, "rather un-British", and runs contrary to the customs of a "tolerant and mutually respectful society". Maybe so: but a poll by YouGov last week found that 67pc of the British population want the burqa banned, and pronto.
Still, the government spokesman, Immigration Minister Damian Green (normally associated with anti-EU sentiments) is surely right. Banning any form of dress -- however distasteful it might seem to some -- is basically illiberal.
Can the state dictate what people should wear? Is this not returning to the Middle Ages, when there were strict sumptuary laws about how nobles, clerics, merchants or peasants should present themselves -- with exact measurements for how long their sleeves might be, or whether a merchant was getting above himself by donning the apparel of the nobleman? Jews could only wear certain kinds of clothes in Shakespeare's time -- are we to return to that?
Obviously, when it comes to the burqa and the abaya, employers should be entitled to specify working regulations without being sued for "discrimination". If a corporation wants its receptionist to show her full face, they should be entitled to say that this is part of the conditions of the job. You can't have a swimming instructor in a niqab. But outside of such practical requirements, and normal standards of decorum (you don't wear a bikini when visiting a church), let citizens wear what they like.
And some Islamic women do freely choose to wear these traditional garments -- they are not necessarily forced into them. They say they feel comfortable when wrapped in the enveloping folds of the abaya or chador. To such women, it is not a symbol of misogyny, but of empowerment.
Hostility to the burqa and similar garments not only conceals a certain xenophobia, but a definite fear -- justified by demographic predictions -- of being "outbred" by Muslim immigrants. A recent demographic prediction showed that 20pc of the population in Britain in 10 years' time will be from non-white ethnic stock -- not just because of immigration, but because of the much higher fertility rate among Islamic women. That fear also runs very deep in France.
Where British and French women practise birth control (and one in five chooses childlessness), Muslim women choose fertility: or their culture still values fertility and encourages its practice. If advanced countries are concerned about the burqa becoming the common symbol of Islamic domination in the street, the most practical measure would be to have more babies -- not go about banning what women wear.