For many observers, it was the moment when demands for public acceptance of the niqab went too far. Earlier this week, Channel 4's Christmas message was delivered by a veiled woman, a Muslim convert, who criticised the Leader of the House, Jack Straw. It might have been dismissed as a stunt, the kind of provocation Channel 4 is known for. But the spectacle of a woman attacking an elected politician under, literally, a veil of anonymity brought into sharp focus the reasons why its growing popularity in this country makes so many people uneasy.
That includes many Muslims, some of whom are as unlikely to wear the hijab (headscarf) or niqab as I am. A few days ago, in an elegant apartment in the centre of London, I met some of them: smart, articulate, beautifully dressed women from very different backgrounds. They all feel strongly that the voices of moderate, rational Islam are not being heard.
Most outspoken of all is the Iranian writer Shusha Guppy, who tells me how she feels when she sees covered women in London. "I feel ill and very angry because it gives a bad image of Islam and provides ammunition to Islamophobes," she declares. "It's theatre - it's saying, 'look at me'."
Yasmine Pawar, a widely travelled woman who was born in Pakistan, agrees. "It's attracting attention in the wrong way, like a child." Amal Ghandour, a strikingly beautiful woman who is visiting London from Beirut, joins in. "I find it bizarre that a woman who is educated or has a PhD finds it normal to be covered."
Dr Khadiga Safwat is a distinguished Sudanese academic and former director of the Middle Eastern and African Research Centre in Wales. When she speaks about the growing popularity of the veil, she immediately puts it into a political context. "I suspect political Islam of being behind all this. It's a political statement, a reaction to globalisation," she tells me.
All the women believe the veil debate demonstrates the fondness of the media for highlighting extreme views. Women who wear the niqab "represent a fringe", says Amal Ghandour, a communications strategist, "but the media tend to focus on them."
All the women are angry about the people chosen to represent Muslims on TV and in newspapers, whether they are male clerics or women wearing the veil. So contentious are these forms of dress among Muslims, one of them points out, that women who cover themselves are known dismissively in parts of the Middle East as "ninjas".
In this room, two of the women - Shusha and Amal - are Shia, while Khadiga and Yasmine are Sunni. The problem, they all insist, is that this diversity has been lost as self-appointed Muslim "leaders" push themselves forward.
It's certainly bizarre that when women in Iraq and Afghanistan are dying for the right not to be covered, there is a furore in this country over the rights of a minority of Muslim women who want to wear the veil. Few of them have been wearing the niqab and jilbab for more than three or four years, yet most journalists don't question the notion that it's an absolute Islamic requirement.
Speaking with the confidence of a woman whose father was a grand ayatollah, Shusha insists that the Koran does not require women to wear the veil. "When the veil was abolished in 1936, the women of my family came to my father," she recalls. "They wanted to know whether they would have to stay at home. He said, not at all. Nobody says you should cover yourselves. You must dress modestly, just as men must dress modestly."
The others join in, confirming that their religion makes exactly the same demand - modesty - on men and women. They are very firm on this point, scoffing at the notion that Islam would impose different rules on the sexes. "The Koran is very precise," Shusha says. "If it wanted to say cover your head, it would have said so. It didn't." Khadiga launches into a scholarly disquisition on the Koran, insisting that the hijab is pre-Islamic and arrived in her home country, Sudan, from Persia.
For all these women, who were among the first in their families to be educated and live as equals with men, seeing younger women adopt the veil in its various forms is a strange and troubling experience. "I didn't have to wear a veil," says Khadiga, thinking back to when she was growing up in Sudan. "Sometimes I would borrow one but it was my choice. No one forced me. The whole of my generation was the same. That was a long time ago. Now we've gotten ourselves entangled in political Islam."
She shakes her head over the case of a young teaching assistant in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, who was dismissed from her job because she refused to remove her niqab in class. "She thought this was God's will," she exclaims. "Now they veil girls at the age of three. It's unheard of. There's some madness. It has to do with a climate of complete cultural confusion."
Amal agrees. "There's always been a fundamentalist current in every ideology," she says. "Religion is a form of identity. The hijab has become a political statement in the Middle East and Europe. Since September 11 it's taken on a new dimension altogether within the context of this clash of civilisations."
It's clear from talking to these brilliant, thoughtful women that the clash isn't between Christian and Muslim cultures; it isn't even between Shia and Sunni, judging by the ease with which they get on with each other. The central conflict is between modern, secular people and the fundamentalists of all faiths who insist that their lives must be lived according to a single interpretation of ancient texts. The British government, which has belatedly recognised the danger of talking to unrepresentative "community leaders", might have had more luck in combating extremism if it had listened to women like these years ago.
As the discussion winds down, Amal suddenly asks: "What if the Koran were to say very clearly that the hijab is a must? Where does that leave women like me?" It's the boldest idea of the afternoon, going to the heart of the debate about women and Islam, but the photographer arrives and it's left hanging in the air.Reuse content