When it comes to genital mutilation for example I think it is quite reasonable for any civilised country to say that we won't tolerate this cruelty just because it has been a part of some citizens' cultural heritage. My own cultural heritage includes burning witches at the stake and that's not allowed either.
In my view the same applies to the wearing of a face veil. To deny someone the opportunity to publicly display their face is I think simply wrong. No man ever wore the veil to protect his modesty. The practice is all about oppressing women and the fact that some chose to adopt this form of oppression doesn't make it an equal opportunity choice. It is usually the women who have been subject to the practice themselves who force girls to go through genetic mutilation. Just because a number of women are happy to go along with their own oppression doesn't make that oppression right.
So I will never understand why political campaigners on the left shy away from this issue and say that an ugly form of unequal oppression is fine by them because it is the choice of a few women. It is hated by a whole lot more. We ought to be condemning the practice and shaming anyone who tries to defend it on the grounds that it is somehow "Islamic". It isn't. The vast majority of Muslims in the world live comfortably with their faith without any remote inclination to adopt this practice. Virtually no one in Indonesia, for example, would believe for a second that this was necessary in order to be a good Muslim woman. Even if faith insisted on it that would not make it right. The Inca faith insisted on human sacrifice and not many people think that's a cultural choice we should accept as value neutral.
But being opposed to something and thinking that you can best stamp it out via a legal ban is another matter altogether. I would love to see the practice cease completely in Britain because it has become culturally unacceptable in our Muslim communities rather than because the state had forced people to stop doing it. A legal ban simply risks playing into the hands of the oppressors. It makes them seem like brave defenders of a cultural practice instead of narrow minded bigots who don't even think women should be allowed a public face.
I believe the best approach to challenging this practice is not to ban it but to heavily discourage it and make it clear that it is not an equally acceptable value neutral choice. I see no reason why any public service or employer should have to bend its rules or change it practices to accommodate women's oppression by men. I don't want my child taught by a teacher who is not allowed or prepared to show her face. I don't see why a bank or an airport should be forced to change its normal security checks because some of their customers have been pressed into refusing to show their face to the world. The cultural practice needs challenging and making a very difficult and awkward choice not pandering to and fostering. In Turkey there are still a whole range of places and circumstances where it is not allowed to wear the veil in public yet in the UK the left are too often allowing the extreme right free range to claim that they are the only people who are prepared to stand up and challenge an unacceptable practice.
Given those views you might expect that I would be enthusiastically supporting the ban that is being imposed in a number of French tourist resorts on the burkini. I am not. If you are prepared to challenge a clearly unacceptable practice that is all about oppression then I think it is important to defend choices that genuinely are cultural. Women from all cultures deserve the opportunity to express themselves in any ways that don't oppress others. The burkini doesn't deny a woman a public face. It simply means that she can go swimming whilst fully clothed from head to foot.
Is this better or worse than going swimming wearing a thong and displaying breasts that have been artificially enhanced by surgery? Plenty of women hate going onto the beach because they feel under pressure to comply with ideas about what their bodies should look like that they don't feel remotely comfortable with. Others love the opportunity and the freedom of wearing very little. Who is to say which cultural choice is the more acceptable?
It seems to me that we have an obligation to be tolerant of cultural choices that are different to those of the mainstream culture up to a point. When those choices do no obvious harm to the person making the choice we should be happy to encourage diversity and to explore and debate the alternatives and leave it to the individual which of the choices she or he feels comfortable with.
But when the choice denies a woman a right to a personality and shuts her off from the world in order to enforce a male dominated culture then those of us who consider ourselves supporters of women's rights and equal opportunities need to speak out clearly. There are huge gains from living in a multi-cultural society. But not all cultural practices are acceptable in a society that wants all its citizens to have significant degrees of equality. Let's have liberty and choice. But let's stop being afraid to restrict extreme oppressive choices when that restriction is required into order to protect some of the most fundamental liberties in a person's life.