Why I, as a British Muslim woman, want the burkha banned from our streets
By Saira Khan | 24th June
Shopping in Harrods last week, I came across a group of women wearing black burkhas, browsing the latest designs in the fashion department.
The irony of the situation was almost laughable. Here was a group of affluent women window shopping for designs that they would never once be able to wear in public.
Yet it's a sight that's becoming more and more commonplace. In hardline Muslim communities right across Britain, the burkha and hijab - the Muslim headscarf - are becoming the norm.
Saira Khan, runner up in the first series of The Apprentice, believes the burkha is an oppressive tool and says it is time to ban it from the streets of Britain
In the predominantly Muslim enclaves of Derby near my childhood home, you now see women hidden behind the full-length robe, their faces completely shielded from view. In London, I see an increasing number of young girls, aged four and five, being made to wear the hijab to school.
Shockingly, the Dickensian bone disease rickets has reemerged in the British Muslim community because women are not getting enough vital vitamin D from sunlight because they are being consigned to life under a shroud.
Thanks to fundamentalist Muslims and 'hate' preachers working in Britain, the veiling of women is suddenly all-pervasive and promoted as a basic religious right. We are led to believe that we must live with this in the name of 'tolerance'.
And yet, as a British Muslim woman, I abhor the practice and am calling on the Government to follow the lead of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and ban the burkha in our country.
The veil is simply a tool of oppression which is being used to alienate and control women under the guise of religious freedom.
My parents moved here from Kashmir in the 1960s. They brought with them their faith and their traditions - but they also understood that they were starting a new life in a country where Islam was not the main religion.
My mother has always worn traditional Kashmiri clothes - the salwar kameez, a long tunic worn over trousers, and the chador, which is like a pashmina worn around the neck or over the hair.
When she found work in England, she adapted her dress without making a fuss. She is still very much a traditional Muslim woman, but she swims in a normal swimming costume and jogs in a tracksuit.
I was born in this country, and my parents' greatest desire for me was that I would integrate and take advantage of the British education system.
They wanted me to make friends at school, and be able to take part in PE lessons - not feel alienated and cut off from my peers. So at home, I wore the salwar kameez, while at school I wore a wore a typical English school uniform.
Now, to some fundamentalists, that made us not proper Muslims. Really?
I have read the Koran. Nowhere in the Koran does it state that a woman's face and body must be covered in a layer of heavy black cloth. Instead, Muslim women should dress modestly, covering their arms and legs.
Many of my adult British Muslim friends cover their heads with a headscarf - and I have no problem with that.
The burkha is an entirely different matter. It is an imported Saudi Arabian tradition, and the growing number of women veiling their faces in Britain is a sign of creeping radicalisation, which is not just regressive, it is oppressive and downright dangerous.
The burkha is an extreme practice. It is never right for a woman to hide behind a veil and shut herself off from people in the community. But it is particularly wrong in Britain, where it is alien to the mainstream culture for someone to walk around wearing a mask.
The veil restricts women. It stops them achieving their full potential in all areas of their life, and it stops them communicating. It sends out a clear message: 'I do not want to be part of your society.'
Every time the burkha is debated, Muslim fundamentalists bring out all these women who say: 'It's my choice to wear this.'
Perhaps so - but what pressures have been brought to bear on them? The reality, surely, is that a lot of women are not free to choose.
Girls as young as four are wearing the hijab to school: that is not a freely made choice. It stops them taking part in education and reaching their potential, and the idea that tiny children need to protect their modesty is abhorrent.
And behind the closed doors of some Muslim houses, countless young women are told to wear the hijab and the veil. These are the girls who are hidden away, they are not allowed to go to university or choose who they marry. In many cases, they are kept down by the threat of violence.
The burkha is the ultimate visual symbol of female oppression. It is the weapon of radical Muslim men who want to see Sharia law on Britain's streets, and would love women to be hidden, unseen and unheard. It is totally out of place in a civilised country.
Precisely because it is impossible to distinguish between the woman who is choosing to wear a burkha and the girl who has been forced to cover herself and live behind a veil, I believe it should be banned.
French President Sarkozy has backed moves to outlaw burkhas in France
President Sarkozy is absolutely right to say: 'If you want to live here, live like us.'
He went on to say that the burkha is not a religious sign, 'it's a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement... In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.'
So what should we do in Britain? For decades, Muslim fundamentalists, using the human rights laws, have been allowed to get their own way.
It is time for ministers and ordinary British Muslims to say, 'Enough is enough'. For the sake of women and children, the Government must ban the wearing of the hijab in school and the burkha in public places.
To do so is not racist, as extremists would have us believe. After all, when I go to Pakistan or Middle Eastern countries, I respect the way they live.
Two years ago, I wore a burkha for the first time for a television programme. It was the most horrid experience. It restricted the way I walked, what I saw, and how I interacted with the world.
It took away my personality. I felt alienated and like a freak. It was hot and uncomfortable, and I was unable to see behind me, exchange a smile with people, or shake hands.
If I had been forced to wear a veil, I would certainly not be free to write this article. Nor would I have run a marathon, become an aerobics teacher or set up a business.
We must unite against the radical Muslim men who love to control women.
My message to those Muslims who want to live in a Talibanised society, and turn their face against Britain, is this: 'If you don't like living here and don't want to integrate, then what the hell are you doing here? Why don't you just go and live in an Islamic country?'