Is the burqa simply a tool for oppressing women?
As I was pushing my way down a busy high street on Sunday afternoon, I got stuck in one of those awkward crowds at the corner of another large road.
There's no real pedestrian right of way in these circumstances, so we all set to the mannered side-stepping and edging forwards required to get through the jam.
I was stuck in the slow lane behind a pram when I noticed a woman coming in the opposite direction, who was getting absolutely nowhere, shoved to the back not just by the onwards traffic but by those coming from behind her and from all sides too. I remember her because she was wearing a burqa.
She wasn't getting anywhere because, if anyone had noticed her, they weren't treating her as part of the scrum. Pushing your way through a crowd requires a degree of engagement with those you're pushing against — impossible if you cannot make eye contact. As her skirt was so long and roomy, who knew whether she had one foot in front of the other, a stance that signals you're about to start moving, or not?
How rubbish it must be to be stuck inside such heavy black clothing on one of Britain's few sunny days, with the world swirling around you as if you were a lamp post, for that's about the level of interaction she could have with passers-by without engaging them in conversation.
I also felt depressed — depressed that here was a woman entirely shrouding her identity in public. Depressed that she was denied even that most basic social interaction with strangers that comes with walking down a busy street. Most of all it depressed me off because it reminded me of what no one — Muslim, misguided liberal or anyone else — can dissuade me of, which is that the burqa is a tool of oppression.
On Monday, President Sarkozy took issue with the proliferation of women wearing the burqa in France, weighing into the debate on whether, as a secular country, the French Republic might outlaw the veiling of one's body from head to toe in public. “The burqa is not a religious sign,” he said.
“It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement ... in our country we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.”
I couldn't have put it better myself. Still, I cannot make up my mind whether I hope Sarkozy gets his way or not.
The official French value system is very different to the British one. As part of its struggle to promote equality, France tries to iron out difference, instead of promoting multiculturalism as we do here, and demands assimilation.
This attempt to do away with an outward display of Muslim fundamentalism is just the latest evidence of how difficult the French state is finding it to absorb a group of immigrants who do not want to surrender themselves to its secularity.
But banishing the burqa from public life will not have the knock-on effect of banishing everything Sarkozy does not like about it from the lives of women who wear it, or from France's problems with assimilating its Muslim community. More likely, some of these women will be kept from public life altogether.
Who am I to judge what another woman can and cannot wear? The strongest pro-burqa argument I can find comes from Muslimah Media Watch in an angry response to an article Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in this newspaper last month. “It (Alibhai-Brown's dislike of the burqa) completely ignores one of the basic rights that feminists, whether in Britain or Saudi Arabia, have fought for, which is that women be able to dress as they please without being judged.”
I do not know how many women “choose” to wear burqas, but the idea they decide as one to wear the same drab garb they had sported on the previous day rather stretches the possibilities of the individual, and equal, expression feminists have fought for.