Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The cloak of darkness is no exercise of civil liberties

Used as a political protest, veils have potency – but the price is too high

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It is gratifying that so many white British liberals have come out to defend shrouded Muslim women. Their generosity of spirit and messianic belief in liberty makes them recoil from a state ban on the burka.

France under Sarkozy is set to take this step to be followed swiftly, I am sure, by some other EU countries. In Egypt too, top theologian, Sheikh Tantawi, of al-Azhar university is pushing for an anti-burka injunction, and Turkey remains ferociously divided over the militant secularism instated by its founding fathers.

Here, we are reassured, such a ban would be impossible. OK, the bonkers UKIP lot and rabid BNP bang on about it; noisy nuisances, easily ignored. Liberals say it just isn't British to prohibit and limit the personal choices of freeborn citizens.

Really? The British never accept any curtailment of individual preferences? So how has it come to pass that in this green and free land, we have more state surveillance and imposed restrictions and regulations than any other EU country ? Why, we can't even take snaps in the streets without a hand of authority falling on the shoulder. Could it be that authoritarianism is not resisted because the British are naturally obedient, following social rules and legal sanctions? From queuing, to drink-drive laws, most of us do what is expected. We surrender personal autonomy, sometimes for reasons that are clearly for the greater good – the anti-smoking laws – and sometimes because our rulers, like all rulers, wish to grab more power.

Naturists would love, I'm sure, to wander down Oxford Street, just window-shopping of course. They can't, because for most people that would be too much out there. Women in the full burka are the other side of that same coin. They give too little out there and, using passive violence, disconnect from the humanity around them.

Then the creed of liberalism, that passion for freedom and choice which sustains and vitalises Western civilisations. Ever more precious and fragile in today's world, I can see why it must be honoured and sheltered from the armies of repression.

However does liberalism have any duty to those who use liberal values as weapons to promote illiberalism? Is it obliged to become a suicide bomber, to self-destruct to prove itself?

We Muslims worldwide are engaged in ideological struggles against the Saudi Wahabis who have the cash and cunning to lure disenchanted middle-class and impoverished, powerless Muslims into their caves, where light itself fears to enter. Yet some liberal Westerners take dilettante positions on freedom because their own lives are unaffected. Instead of standing with modernists, the staunchest defenders of freedom, they defect to the enemy. The retrogressive Muslim Council of Britain is now back in bed with the Government.

You people who support the "freedom" to wear the burka, do you think anorexics and drug addicts have the right to choose what they do? This covering makes women invisible, invalidates their participatory rights and confirms them as evil temptresses. Does it stop men from raping them? Does it mean they have more respect in the home and enclaves? Like hell it does. I feel the same fury when I see Orthodox Jewish women in wigs, with their many children, living tightly proscribed lives.

Progressive Muslims come out daily against the burka, and against mothers who bind and swaddle their young girls in preparation for their eventual incarceration which they will accept without a cry – both un-Islamic customs. Yes, the burka will be used by racists against us. But while fighting racism we cannot allow ourselves to become apologists for another, abhorrent injustice.

I also understand that as society becomes less restrained, fear makes Muslims opt for separation. Used as a political protest, veils have potency – but the price is too high. Farzana Hassan of the Muslim Canadian Congress wants the burka banned because gender equality is non-negotiable. British Muslims for Secular Democracy (of which I am chair) are against a ban but do support restrictions in key public spaces, and point out that during the Haj pilgrimage no woman covers her face, that the burka makes women more, not less, conspicuous, and that communication is unequal because one party hides all expression.

On Thursday a woman in the cloak of darkness got off the Tube train and stepped on some toes as she rushed. The looks that followed, pure hatred, and then the mutters, some from other Asians: "Stupid women, giving us all a bad name. They should send them back." Others joined in. It was awful. I felt for her and against her for living in darkness, and for her effect on the easily destabilised social environment and on the faith I hold dear.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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