Whenever I see a woman in a veil walking down the street, I get a chill. I'm not talking about women in head scarves, or even women dressed entirely in black. I'm talking about the full shroud, with only a slit left for the eyes. Not many women dress like this in Canada, but I'm seeing more and more, at least a couple every week.
To me, the niqab -- the face veil -- is deeply alienating. Yes, I know some women wear it out of choice, and some say it gives them freedom. But to me, it's a powerful symbol of cultural separation and gender oppression. Am I wrong to feel so uneasy? Who should adapt -- the veiled ones, or me?
In tolerant, conflict-averse Canada, it's almost taboo to ask this question. But, in Britain, where the clash of cultures is infinitely more troublesome, the niqab has sparked a huge and heated debate. The latest to weigh in is Salman Rushdie, who agrees with me. He says the veil "sucks."
It was Jack Straw, a former Labour home secretary whose constituency is 25-per-cent Muslim, who got it started. Last week, he wrote that he had asked some women visiting his constituency office to take off their veils, so he could converse with them more easily. (He says they seemed happy to do so.) "I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face to face' who I could not see," he explained. He went on to argue that the veil is a barrier between the wearer and the world. "Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers -- people being able to acknowledge each other in the street or being able to pass the time of day. That's made more difficult if people are wearing a veil. That's just a fact of life."
Naturally, the usual suspects lined up to denounce him. The Islamic Human Rights Commission called his views "astonishing." Muslim women, even unveiled ones, protested that non-Muslims have no right to tell them what to do. One of the harshest condemnations came from Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting, who accused him of unleashing a storm of prejudice against the Islamic community. "Their choice of clothing is as irrelevant as that of Goths."
But a lot of Muslims took Mr. Straw's side. They see the niqab not just as a religious symbol, but as a political one. "Even other Muslims who I talk to consider the niqab offensive," said Mai Yamani, a London-based Saudi academic.
Although veiled women are still a minority of Muslims, their numbers have been growing. Many are British-born and educated young women who have embraced a more fundamental version of Islam. Some -- as in Canada -- are converts who have decided to publicly display their newfound faith.
"The growing number of women veiling their faces in Britain is a sign of radicalization," wrote Saira Khan (a Muslim) in The Times. "It sends out a clear message: 'I do not want to be part of your society.' " She argued that veiling is particularly wrong in Britain, where it is "alien to the mainstream culture for someone to walk around wearing a mask." Then she said what many people feel but nobody will say: "If you don't like living here and don't want to integrate, then what the hell are you doing here?"
"I find the veil offensive," wrote Yasmin Alibahai-Brown, who said it is invariably connected to the most repressive forms of Islam. A woman in a niqab, she says, is just as much the victim of sexual objectification as a half-naked woman in a tube top. "The niqab expunges the female Muslim presence from the landscape and hands the world over to men."
Across Europe, there has been a sea change in the debate over multiculturalism. Today, moderates such as Mr. Straw are raising the sort of questions that used to be confined to the far right. There is a growing sentiment that immigrants should be more like "us" -- if not in dress, then certainly in values -- and a spreading unease that some Muslims and the mainstream may not be able to co-exist. The trouble with the veil is not simply that it makes conversation difficult. It is that it stands for a set of behaviours and beliefs that are fundamentally incompatible with those of a liberal democracy. Take off your veils, ladies. I beg you.