The French government has banned burkas. There, tis done. The law is patently dictatorial and discriminatory. In democratic societies governments do not and should not interfere to this extent in private lives and personal preferences. France lays bare again its cultural supremacy and arrogance and hateful attitudes towards Muslims. I have not holidayed there since being subjected to racial contempt meted out by ignoramus Gallic folk to anyone who looks "Arab". Unlike other colonial nations, the French have never sombrely reassessed their history. During some periods they systematically degraded humans in their own country and around the world. When the children of the latter came to stay, they too were, and are, maligned and despised.
In Britain, in spite of racism, people of colour have in general progressed and millions have joined the middle classes. France has not opened up those opportunities. It keeps most incomers and their children within deprived banlieues, out of sight and mind and criminalised. So for this lifelong anti-racist, defending any French policy feels like scheming with the enemy, wicked treachery. My self-declared new best friends this week will be grisly right-wingers and repellent fascists, and some old best friends will be so angry that things may never again be the same between us.
With all that in mind, I still come out against the various forms of veils taken up by fellow citizens, most born in Europe, now making a tent city within in its borders.
Years ago, I warned that the simple headscarf (hijab) was but the first step to full fabric incarceration. I was mocked and disparaged then by Muslim adherents, as well as many on the left. To them, such challenges to cultural practices validate bigotry and threaten liberties. Their laudable concern makes criticism impossibly difficult. Now they are everywhere, ravens, in burka (long cloaks) and niqab (face veils), their little girls scarved and in cumbersome long coats (in training, I am told) for that big day when they too can go into prisons of black polyester. They will be smiling, one mother of four daughters said to me. Or they may be crying, I said, and nobody will see either.
Here is a list of my main objections:
1. While modesty is required of Muslim men and women and men are asked to "lower their gazes", there is no injunction to hide the hair, and the verses on coverings have different interpretations. The Prophet's wives were veiled to stop harassers and supplicants. Saudis use big money to push their fanatically anti-woman Islam in this country. Each niqab is one more win in that assault on hearts and minds.
2. Iranian, Afghan, Saudi and other Muslim women are beaten and tortured for the smallest sartorial transgression. European Muslims donning the niqab are giving succour to the oppressors in those countries.
3. They say it stops molestation and is a mark of respect. Oh yeah? So tell me why there are appalling levels of rape and violence in Muslim lands. And by implication do we, European women who don't cover, therefore deserve molestation?
4. It is a form of female apartheid, of selected segregation tacitly saying non-veiled women are pollutants. There is such a thing as society and we connect with our faces. A veiled female withholds herself from that contact and reads our faces, thus gaining power over the rest of us.
5. "Choice" cannot be the only consideration. And anyway, there is no evidence that all the women are making rational, independent decisions. As with forced marriages, they can't refuse. Some are blackmailed and others obey because they are too scared to say what they really want. Some are convinced they will go to hell if they show themselves. Some bloody choice.
6. It sexualises girls and women in the same way as "erotic" garb does and is just as obscene.
7. When a woman is fully shrouded, how do we know if she is a victim of domestic violence?
8. God gave women femininity and individuality. Why should we bury those gifts? How grotesque to ask a women to parcel herself up and be opened up by only her husband.
9. What an insult this is to Muslim men – the accusation that they will jump any woman not protected with a cloth. Are we to assume that sexuality snakes around every male-female contact, even between a surgeon and patient, bank clerk and customer, teacher and pupil?
10. When on hajj in Mecca, men and unveiled women pray together. The Saudis want to change that.
11. The niqab is pre-Islamic, was worn byupper-class Byzantine women to keep away from riff-raff.
12. Muslim women in the 1920s and 1930s threw off these garments to claim freedom – my mother's generation. Their struggles are dishonoured by brainwashed females.
13. Veil supporters say they are going back to the original Islamic texts and lives. But they don't ride camels, and have mobile phones and computers. So they can embrace modernity but refuse to on this.
14. These women who fight for their rights to veil do not fight for the rights of those of us who won't.
15. They say it is free will, but in three private Muslim schools in Britain, girls have to wear niqab and are punished for not obeying. The same is true in many families and communities.
16. Most importantly, all these cloth casingsaccept that females are dangerous and evil, that their presence only creates inner and outer havoc in men and public spaces. All religions believe that to some extent. Feminists must fight these prejudices.
More arguments are on the website of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, which I co-founded. Bans are too harsh, but without some state intervention most Muslim women will be rendered faceless and probably voiceless too. We have societal expectations and conventions – naturists can't go about starkers; motorbike helmets are removed in office receptions; woman don't wear tight miniskirts to serious job interviews. A dress code for Muslim women when in public institutions would free up our faith from the grip of fanatics and reintegrate us into our country.
Remember, when France disallowed hijab in schools, there were similar, dark warnings. All is calm today. As Almira, a 17- year-old, told me: "The state looked after us." Ours must too.
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