There's an area of Brighton beach, at the Kemptown end, just before the Marina, set aside for what the discreet signs refer to, in oblique British fashion, as 'naturist bathing'. By which they mean: bathing in the nude. No, I haven't bathed there, not yet anyway, but swimming with nothing on is pretty wonderful. In fact I'd prefer always to swim without clothes, because the more you think about the reasons that 'clothing' (a small strip of nylon, for men; two small strips, for women) is insisted upon, the more daft the naked prohibition seems. In the case of women, very little is left to the imagination with a bikini top - so why bother? And in the case of men, either very little or an awful lot is left to the imagination with speedo trunks - so again, why bother?
Well, we bother, of course, or, rather, it is bothered about, because a handful of our external sexual organs are deemed to be just that, I suppose - sexual. But this can't be the whole reason. Your face is surely the most sexual of your organs, and we don't cover that up (you may now predict where this post is going). Or is the prohibition rooted in some sort of Freudian distaste? That we don't care to be reminded of the dual purposes these organs perform? But my hands perform a heck of a lot more functions than that which lies beneath my speedos; yet rarely, since the end of the Edwardian era, have we found it distasteful to see one another's hands in public. In any case, I long ago gave up the joyless writhing that a full evasion of seaside nudity incurs (struggling into a pair of trunks underneath a beach towel while lying on my back on a pebbly beach: this was not my seaside dream) and now just get changed in full view of anyone who cares to watch; so for about 15 seconds a swim I'm breaking the prohibition and do the Full Monty. I'm sort-of (but not hugely) glad to report that so far I've not caused any riots.
So. All this to point out that our rules on clothing are arbitrary, and seem to arise from the culture we inhabit, rather than via legislative edict (I think the laws follow the custom here, something which is comfortable for a Tory, but would strike Labour politicians of the Blair-Brown era as almost completely insane). We instinctively recognise this, as Brighton proves, because while most people prefer to bathe in speedos and bikinis, we don't forbid the setting aside of an area of the beach where nudity is permitted to occur. (If nudity were wrong per se, this surely wouldn't happen). And however strongly I wish that most swimming was carried out in the buff, even I wouldn't expect to visit the post office whilst naked without provoking a reaction from everyone else. ('Daddy, what's a post office?' That's another story).
This is the point about burqas and why I find them so annoying (though come to think of it, one would be handy for getting changed inside on the beach). The discussion about what to wear and what to ban reduces to 'Women are oppressed into wearing them/I can't see their face' vs 'People should wear what they like'. Each of these points is good in itself. Women shouldn't be forced to cover up like some medieval chattel. It simply isn't possible to interact with someone as well as you'd like if you cannot see their face (that's why corporations still send employees to face to face meetings, because the telephone just isn't an adequate substitute). But people should be able to wear (or not wear) what they want. Could we resolve this dispute simply by adding the phrase - lost to British legislation under the New Labour Terror, but hopefully now returning to common currency - within reason? I can dress how I wish - within reason. Within reason, I'm not naked on the beach. If I visit your church, I'll choose my clothing within reason. If you want to interact with me, then you must permit a reasonable amount of facial visibility.
Choosing to ignore reason - to pretend that you can walk down the street and demand to be treated in the same way as everyone else, even if you choose to dress in such a way that makes it impossible for other reasonable people to interact with you as they would wish - makes you reason's opposite: it makes you unreasonable. It is unreasonable for the champions of the burqa to pretend that their use is merely some manifestation of liberal orthodoxy, supposedly culturally neutral, rather than a deliberate, petty and offensive message to the un-burqa'ed citizenry. It is not my fault, when confronted with a woman who refuses to show her face, that I think: you do not want to know me. It is the choice of the burqa wearer; a deliberate choice to increase the levels of separation in Britain.
Of course I would not criminalise such people. But it is ridiculous of the burqa wearers to pretend that the rest of us should neither notice their deliberate gesture, nor comment negatively upon it.