The burqa debate now brewing in France started here much before French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched his attack on the Muslim veil saying it was oppressive.
British Justice Secretary Jack Straw went public on the issue over a year ago, saying he felt uncomfortable with Muslim women who came to his constituency surgery in Blackburn, a predominantly Muslim area, with their faces covered.
For good measure, he added that the burqa and the niqab were “visible statements of separation and of differences”.
He not only risked the wrath of his voters but also triggered protests from Islamic associations and the country’s liberal Left.
But nothing changed.
According to Lord Adam Patel, who is both political and religious leader in the constituency, Straw remained as popular as ever. The burqa continues to be accepted as part of Muslim culture in Britain.
Sarkozy’s outburst is seen as pure politicking.
Yet, women in burqa can hardly be seen in Central London or many other parts of the city for that matter. It’s mostly in places like Harrods, Selfridges and M&S, popular with Arab families, that one comes across groups of women in burqa.
It appears incongruous but many can be seen buying modern Western designer garments that they will, of course, never be seen wearing in public.
It’s only in cities like Derby or Bradford, which have large Muslim populations, that burqa-clad women are seen in large numbers.
But it is possible that even in these cities, the number of women not wearing it outnumber those who never step out of the house without being covered from head to foot.
Sarkozy’s comments have nevertheless ignited a debate here more serious than during the Straw episode, possibly because France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe.