I suspect that once upon a time, a lot of people in England would have seen a woman with something wrapped around her head and assumed that it was Mrs. X from down the road who had just gone to get a blue rinse at the hairdressers and didn't want her 'do getting all weather-beaten. These days, if we are to believe what the press and the polls are telling us, a large proportion would think that she was a terrorist.
That worries me, and it saddens me, because most of the people who, according to Channel 4 News' poll, are in favour of banning the wearing of the niqab in public are probably not overtly racist, intolerant or generally nasty: they are probably not the types to go on EDL marches or start trying to set fire to mosques. They've just paid too much attention to newspapers that tell them that anyone hiding part of their face must be up to no good, and they're made to feel confused and frightened. A few years ago they would have seen a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt and thought he was hiding a knife. These days they see a woman with a veil covering her face and think that she is hiding a bomb.
I still, perhaps optimistically, do not believe that we live in an overtly racist society, and yet in a way I find that makes it harder to understand how we can go about bridging the divide that we seem to be in the process of widening. If I could see that this 56% were openly intolerant people who had a deep-seated hatred of anyone who didn't have at least twelve generations of 'British' heritage, I would find it easier to dismiss their ideas as mad extremism. But how do you fight the argument that 'by banning the niqab we are liberating oppressed women'? How do you explain that this is just a hidden form of prejudice, that the assumptions a) that their culture and religious beliefs are restrictive, b) that they are in need of 'saving' and c) that we, with our Western lifestyles 'know better', are based only in our blind sense of self-righteousness? It's this kind of thing that gives credence to the idea of a ban on the niqab, and it's this that we need to work out how to address.
The problem is that we have spent too long dismissing the advocates of this kind of ban as racist lunatics, and so we have become complacent. We have assumed that ours is not the kind of society that would pass such blatantly unjust laws, and that our fellow citizens would eventually 'see sense'. Indeed, when we have reacted, we have compared it to the anti-Semitic legislation of Hitler's Germany, which has the effect of provoking a violent emotional response, but not actually encouraging any deep and meaningful discussion.
In fact, it is these people, the inadvertent racists, who set the tone for the discussion. We have reached the point where it is those of us opposed to this kind of ban who find ourselves defending the right of any woman to wear the niqab, a miniskirt, a really ugly jumper or nothing at all, rather than them defending their desire to set out guidelines for what she can and cannot wear when she heads out for work or to the shops. It is becoming more and more common for mainstream politicians to make concessions about the need for public safety, and 'equality under the law', ignoring the fact that this kind of ban has precisely the effect of taking away that equality. It has no impact on my daily life whether my neighbour can wear the niqab. It has an enormous impact on hers.
I'm not saying that I know the answers to the questions of multiculturalism, and whether the niqab has a place in modern British society. I know that my own attitude, which could be briefly summarised as 'live and let live', is perhaps not entirely practical from a legislative point of view. But I also think that we need to have a proper, open discussion about the state of our society and its values, and to outline exactly what the effect of this kind of legislation would be. We can't just go on hoping that common sense will prevail: what will we do if it doesn't?