Intrepid Sunday Times reporter Rosie Kinchen takes to the streets wearing a niqab (£). "She can hardly see, walk or breathe, but more unnerving is the hostility she encounters", the by-line informs us. Oh dear. What horrors of intolerance are about to unfold?
It is hard to empathise with those who wear it. So I am spending two days in a niqab to try to see the world from the other side of the veil.
Oxford Street is a shopping mecca for tourists from all over the world, particularly the Middle East. Yet within minutes of stepping onto the bustling pavement I notice that every pair of eyes lingers on me. Some people glance furtively; others are shameless, standing directly in front of me and gawping.
At Topshop two men nearly fall off the top of the escalator because they’ve been looking at me so intently. A man tugs on his wife’s sleeve and points at me. It is deeply unsettling, yet I can understand why it is happening. The niqab, a black piece of fabric that covers the face, is worn with a black cowl and cap and a black floor-length gown.
My niqab is particularly conservative: it has two layers. If I lower just one, my eyes are visible; if I lower both, none of my features can be detected at all. It is also very hard for me to see. I can make out faces about a yard in front of me, but anyone beyond that is a blur. (I sense that some of those looking at me are wondering how I navigate.)
Furthermore, I struggle to be heard. I spend minutes following a sales assistant around Topshop, hollering at her, but she can’t hear a thing. When I tap her on the shoulder she looks taken aback but quickly makes a joke about being a million miles away. I laugh and joke back but she looks puzzled; without facial expressions the social interaction falls flat.
I spend the best part of an hour walking into shops and trying to engage people in conversation, but the same thing keeps happening: they are polite but uncomfortable.
I ask one teenage girl in a clothes shop where she got her jumper. She smiles and says she stole it from her mum. I laugh, but her friends are looking at me with barely disguised pity. I get this look throughout the day, especially from younger women.
I travel around London on the Tube and bus, but the niqab makes it hazardous. With no peripheral vision I twice step in front of cars. I can’t see my feet, which makes escalators terrifying, and I can’t breathe easily. The fabric in front of my face blocks fresh air and I feel nauseous.
I spot a colleague and am preparing a witty explanation for the outfit when I realise he has no idea who I am. The same thing happens in my local coffee shop where I’m a regular: no one recognises me. The niqab is a cloak of anonymity.
I’m horrified to realise that for many it makes me the object of amusement. In the City two men in suits burst out laughing. But by far the most humiliating moment is when I stop at a pizza restaurant and order a drink and some dough balls.
As I attempt to eat them under the niqab, the rest of the clientele make an effort not to stare. The waiters, three Italians, stand at the back of the restaurant watching me and openly laughing. A later attempt to have some soup is even more catastrophic.
I am tutted at repeatedly by passers-by. An Asian man on the Tube stands in front of me until I meet his eye and then he very slowly and deliberately shakes his head from side to side. I start to hang back and avoid looking at people.
The most striking incident happens when I decide to brave the security checks to get into Buckingham Palace with the tourists. This goes smoothly, but on the other side a well-spoken Englishwoman storms up to me wagging her finger and says loudly: “You are absolutely ridiculous, honest to God, ridiculous.”
We are surrounded by people and I look to them for support, but everybody averts their eyes. I’m furious at her rudeness and I’m frustrated. If she could see my face she would realise that I feel tired and threatened. Instead she sees me as threatening. The niqab is an unbreachable barrier between us.
Well precisely. The niqab is an unbreachable barrier. It's intended to be an unbreachable barrier. So the reactions of the wretched reporter, who wants to interact with people, chat with them, gain their sympathy - though entirely natural - can't be taken as some kind of insight into how women in niqabs generally feel. Women who wear the niqab are making it clear that they have no interest in social interaction, don't want to chat, and don't care for our sympathy. The whole set-up of the report is absurd.
There's one piece of genuine hostility she encounters, (which, naturally, she mentions right at the start of the article). As she's getting off the Tube a young man whispers in her ear: “Take that shit off your face", leaving her "shocked and then furious". But that was the whole point, wasn't it? Wander round central London in a black sack with a small slit for the eyes until someone makes an offensive remark, and....hey, you've got a story! All the hassle's finally paid off.
As for the rest - long may the people of London continue to stare, or laugh, or point. I don't think we should get habituated to the niqab. Yes indeed, women on the street should be free to wear what they want, but that freedom also entails the freedom of others (within the bounds of the law, and without intimidation) to express their reactions. And I can't really bring myself to disapprove of the "well-spoken Englishwoman" who tells her how ridiculous she looks. Rude, certainly, but a refreshingly honest change from those leading feminists who can't see past "Islamophobia".