And so it came to pass that a sensible decision was made by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), and Gloucester Old Spots were seen flying in neat formation over Strasbourg. No, seriously.
Judges at the ECHR have upheld France’s ban on the burka. The court accepted the French argument that the ban on face coverings in public, which was introduced in 2010, encouraged citizens to “live together”. France had submitted that the face “played a significant role in social interaction” and that individuals might not wish to see, in places open to all, practices or attitudes which could fundamentally call into question the possibility of an open, interpersonal relationship that formed “an indispensable element of community life”.
In other words, many of us are offended and perturbed by the sight of a woman wandering around in a bin bag, condemned to be cut off from normal human interaction in a modern democracy.
The case was brought by a 24-year-old French citizen of Pakistani origin who chooses to wear both the burka, covering her entire head and body, and the niqab, leaving only her eyes uncovered. Thus, this young woman surveys the 21st century through a medieval slit.
The woman was represented by solicitors from Birmingham who claimed that the outlawing of the full-face veil was contrary to the European convention. They argued it was “inhumane and degrading, against the right of respect for family and private life, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of speech and discriminatory”.
But the ECHR judges agreed with the French authorities and with the Belgian government, which introduced a similar ban in 2011 and was party to the French defence. Representing Belgium, Isabelle Niedlispacher said both the burka and the niqab were incompatible with the rule of law. Apart from the security question, she said “it’s about social communication, the right to interact with someone by looking them in the face and about not disappearing under a piece of clothing”.
And so say all of us.
Well, not quite all. Liberty’s director Shami Chakrabarti immediately linked the decision to “rising racism in Western Europe”: “How do you liberate women by criminalising their clothing?” she asked. “If you suspect bruises under a burka, why punish the victim, and if you disapprove of the wearer’s choices, how does banishing her from public engagement promote liberal attitudes?”
To answer Ms Chakrabarti’s questions in turn:
1. You liberate women by criminalising their clothing because you send out a strong message that garments that have nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with grotesque misogyny and the treatment of females as second-class citizens, have no place in a modern democracy. If the state bans such clothing then the hope is that young women will gradually be empowered to hold out against it, and attitudes within their community will have to change. Last week, France’s highest court upheld the firing of a crèche worker for “serious misconduct” after she arrived for work wearing a veil. No parent of a child at her school will be left in any doubt what is takes to be a French citizen.
2. If you suspect bruises under a burka, you are not punishing the victim by banning her clothing. On the contrary, you are helping the victim by bringing her out into the open, exposing her treatment to the general view and making her feel part of social norms so she need not suffer in secret. The burka is literally a cover-up – a way of disguising abuse.
3. How does banishing her from public engagement promote liberal attitudes? Well, you are not banning her from public places, are you? That is her choice. You are saying that, if she wishes to be part of Western society, then she must adopt a style of dress outside the home that shows she is willing to be part of the community. An unveiled face is a bare minimum in this regard. The burka and niqab are hostile and scary to our eyes, and for good reason.
As for an increase in racism, that is being fuelled by a failure to integrate and, ironically, an implacable hostility to liberal attitudes. The French and Belgian bans on the burka are the opposite of racism: they insist that all citizens are treated the same and have an equal chance of belonging. The burka is a cause of racism, not a symptom.
So, following the ringing clarity on this fractious issue from the ECHR, is there now a chance that Britain will also ban the burka?
I’d like to think so. Still, you can bet our pusillanimous politicians will mutter that it is not for the state to interfere in what people choose to wear, even though girls in schools suspected of fostering Islamic fundamentalism seem to have little choice in their clothing, or in much else. They are treated by a patriarchal culture as if they were being raised in rural Pakistan and a liberal British establishment wrings its hands and conspires in their oppression.
One day, the burkas, like a flock of crows, will come home to roost. Ban it. Now.
Award-winning journalist Allison Pearson is a columnist and the chief interviewer of the Daily Telegraph.