Andrew Lilico is an Economist with Europe Economics, and a member of the Shadow Monetary Policy Committee
First, let's be clear what this question is not about. It's not about whether Muslim women should wear veils in courtrooms or at airport security or passport control or whilst running dangerous machinery that requires peripheral vision or any or special situation in which there would be restrictions on anyone else's headwear. You can't wear hoodies in those situations, either, and in most of them you can't wear hats. But if someone asked: "Should men be banned from wearing hats" you wouldn't think the correct answer is "Yes – they shouldn't wear hats when going through passport control."
No. The question of whether Muslim women should be banned from wearing veils is the question of whether, in ordinary social situations – when walking in the street, or at work, or in classrooms – they should be permitted to wear veils. I say: yes, if they want to.
Let's dispose of another red herring at this point. It doesn't make the slightest difference to me – indeed, it isn't of the slightest interest – whether the wearing of the veil is or is not required by the Koran or is simply a cultural device. I don't care why women want to wear veils (provided they aren't planning to use them to facilitate any crime, such as a fraud). I don't care whether it's because they believe they are commanded to do so by the Koran, or because they want to maintain the traditions of their forefathers, or because they want to keep good relations with their brothers, or simply because they think veils make their eyes look sexy.
Some folk say: "But a veil is a symbol of oppression." They say: "Many women who wear veils do so because they are pressurised into doing so by those around them." They also so: "By wearing the veil these women cut themselves off from those around them and damage their full participation in the rest of society, making themselves more dependent on those around them that insist they wear veils, reducing the power of the women and increasing the power of those around them." That is, I think, the nub of it.
If, what is meant here, is that some of these women only wear veils because they are subject to threats of violence or of having their property taken from them or their children kidnapped, then we don't need any more laws. Such coercive threats are already illegal. The women concerned are entitled to report such threats to the police, and the police should take action. The issue in such a case is not the veil; it's the threats.
But that isn't really what opponents of the veil are saying. What they are claiming is that women are coerced into wearing veils by social pressure – by the threat that they will be stigmatised or cast out of their communities if they don't conform. And I say: in Britain, women don't have to wear veils unless they choose to; and if they do choose not to, those around them don't have ever to talk to them or have anything to do with them again. Freedom runs both ways, and applies to the more conservatively minded as well as to the more libertine. Social pressure is an entirely legitimate form of pressure. There is not the slightest thing improper about those that morally disapprove of people shunning them.
To believe that British liberalism is intrinsically libertine is to misunderstand, entirely, where British liberalism came from. It is to be historically illiterate. British liberalism was born as a doctrine to facilitate the interaction of puritans and high-churchmen, of episcopalians and congregationalists, and later of Catholics and Anglicans. The point is not that we seek a society of the maximum license and frown upon moral conservatism or censure. Indeed, originally the main point of freedom of speech was precisely that people should be able to censure conduct they disapproved of, and try to persuade others around to their view.
So if an elderly Muslim women thinks her granddaughter little better than a harlot if she walks the streets with her face showing, she should be entitled to think and say that and to act out her beliefs (peaceably and in an orderly fashion) by shunning her daughter or indeed calling her names in the street (provided she does not thereby create a sustained disturbance). If the daughter wants to defy or leave her community and not wear the veil, she's entitled to do that to.
Most folk try to fit in with those they want to get along with, and the clothes we wear are a key part of that. We wear jeans when our pals wear jeans, bikinis when our pals wear bikinis, nose-rings when our pals wear nose-rings, and veils when our pals wear veils. Saying veils should be banned because some women wear them to try to fit in makes no more sense than saying nose-rings should be banned because some women wear them to try to fit in (which is true).
Provided no-one is threatening violence or theft or kidnapping or other criminality, British women should be allowed to wear veils, other than inappropriate times (passport control, etc.) if that is what they want to do. And if they choose not to do that, those that think they should wear them are entitled to shun them. That's what freedom is.