Was my red-faced response merited by my cultural insensitivity? Or should I have been the one affronted by hers?
Initially I reproached myself for the former, but later, as the summer's events unfolded, changed my mind, relieving myself of a burden of responsibility I now felt, on closer inspection, I didn't deserve. Surely the lady in question should've moderated her behaviour in an effort to accommodate the cultural mores of her adoptive country, not the other way round. Is that not common sense? After all, I wouldn't walk into the home of my in laws without doing as they do and first taking off my shoes.
I would certainly describe her behaviour as rude and inconsiderate. But should we proscribe it? How can western society reconcile its commitment to tolerance and freedom of expression whilst banning an item of clothing viewed as essential to a person's religious beliefs?
Well, you may say, we don't ordinarily allow members of the public to walk around naked, so freedom of expression does have its limits - limits we don't ordinarily question.
More to the point, though, is the patently obvious fact that the Burka is an affront to women's rights. It's a deeply misogynistic item of clothing that openly symbolises enslavement, even if the wearer insists that she freely chooses to wear it and, as a consequence, actively colludes in her own subjugation. Surely we should do all we can to prevent Stockholm syndrome, not encourage it.
Indeed, on a personal note, when I consider my wife and daughter, I do worry about what this open and growing expression of female inferiority may mean for them, especially when one also considers the demographic changes taking place in London and elsewhere. Will they at some point in the not too distant future feel uncomfortable exposing even the slightest bit of skin?
With this in mind, I do sympathise with the French predicament, but have to admit, still feel some discomfort resorting to an outright or even partial ban based on an ideological difference of opinion, no matter how profound.
Where do we draw the line? What do we ban next? If we're going to ban the Burka and Niqab, why not the Hijab? Doesn't the Hijab also illustrate the belief that women should dress modestly? Doesn't it also openly express the fragility and innate inferiority of the so called fairer sex? They are either too emotionally fragile to fully engage in public life or too sexually provocative, seductive and beguiling to expose themselves to the easily corruptible, aren't they? Either way, they play second fiddle to men, as many other Islamic precepts bear testimony to. Shall we ban them all, or perhaps the whole religion, which happens to be, in many manifestations, deeply misogynistic and homophobic to boot? Is the very existence of the religion an insult to women and western values?
Or perhaps we should, like the French, forcibly emancipate women by imposing semi-nakedness on them. This is surely one logical corollary of proscribing the Burkini. Where do you stop? Should we ban all forms of modesty? How will it be enforced? Will disgruntled Muslims simply find another way to illustrate the same belief?
Look, I find the Burka deeply offensive. Choosing to wear it in Britain is, in my view, an act of self-harm as well as one of unconscionable rudeness. I would indeed be happy if I never saw one again. But banning it is not the answer. It simply raises too many unanswerable questions that put us on a slippery slope to proscribing anything and everything that may offend.
As far as I'm concerned, the lady I met at parents' evening was rude and inconsiderate. But would I ban her right to be so? Absolutely not.