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Muslim Veils May Be Born of Misogyny: But I Will Defend The Right Of Women To Wear Them

17/09/2013 12:30 BST | Updated 16/11/2013 10:12 GMT

We live in a pluralist society: I don't want anyone to lecture me about the way I choose to live my life: in return, I won't lecture them.

But Yasmin Alibhai-Brown seems to think that being a Muslim woman herself gives her the right to condemn other Muslim women choosing to wear a veil.

'When Muslims wilfully create problems and build barriers,' she wrote in The Independent on Monday, 'anti-racists and egalitarians have a duty to engage with them critically and in good faith.'

Of course I understand that there are times when the wearing of a niqab can have a practical implication - such as hygiene reasons when working in medicine or for identification purposes in court. But to describe what is clearly a deeply held personal conviction about the significance of wearing such garments as 'wilfully' creating 'problems' is simply disingenuous and offensive.

Now, Alibhai-Brown is a journalist I respect, who has written excellent pieces on tolerance, civil liberties and religion over the years. But listening to her speak on Monday evening at Liberty's fringe meeting at Liberal Democrat Conference, where she reiterated these same sentiments, I recoiled at her approach to the issue of the Muslim veil.

She repeated her argument from the article that the wearing of a veil is never mentioned in Islamic religious texts and is an entirely modern construct of Gulf states, aimed at the subjugation of women. That's an understandable perspective, and one which I share.

But who is she to tell others that this invalidates their choice of clothing. For all Alibhai-Brown - or any of us - knows, this person (now so dismissively discussed in a dehumanised way) - this woman, has interrogated this patriarchal origin but still finds spiritual or symbolic meaning in the use of the veil. Who knows? Why not ask them? But you don't find out through telling people what's right and wrong for them. You progress through dialogue and understanding.

Alibhai-Brown says that the veil reinforces the notion that women, if seen, are hazardous to men and society, stating, 'these are unacceptable , iniquitous values, enforced violently by Taliban, Saudi and Iranian oppressors.'

Again, I fully accept this point: but projecting this understanding of the wearing of the veil onto those who choose (and I repeat choose) to wear it is to negate the agency of those women. It is to say that we have deemed this type of clothing incompatible with our values as a nation - but don't worry sisters, it's for your own good and you'll thank us once you understand that we've unshackled you from a misogynistic and repressive religio-cultural signifier. White man's burden anyone?

Perhaps Yasmin Alibhai-Brown would like to say that to people. But I don't. I would like people to pursue their own lives, coming to their own conclusions, without pompous prescriptions from others - no matter how righteous they might seem.

The true measure of a pluralist society is living and engaging with one another in ways which are mutually comprehensible. But simply decrying and invalidating the life-choices of others is the hallmark of cultures which Alibhai-Brown is usually all too ready to condemn.