"Please uncover your face. That's OUR custom."

Why are women’s faces concealed in East London but not in Damascus? Or Beirut? Or Istanbul?

By Matthew Parris

Funny to return from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey – where women go unveiled – and return to Britain, the land of the full hijab. I see more women with their faces covered in London than I did in Damascus.

I used to think that covering the whole face except for the eyes was the normal Islamic custom (in a week in Afghanistan I hardly saw a woman’s face) and so was surprised to find that even in Syria, themost culturally conservative of the Middle Eastern countries I’ve just visited, not a tenth of the women seem to cover their faces. Most (by no means all) cover their heads, but you don’t get that closed, turning-away feeling you sense along the Whitechapel Road in the East End of London. In the Damascus streets, women in all-women groups, and women with men, chat and laugh; and I saw to be true (what some Muslims have already told me) that the full hijab cannot be considered a religious duty, but is simply a cultural feature of some societies that are Muslim, but not others.

If so, how far should we tolerate it? Spitting is a cultural feature in China but we discourage it here. In Syria I took my shoes off to enter mosques, though that is not in my culture; and wouldn’t have worn clothing like skimpy shorts or vests, or drunk alcohol in the streets: practices offensive not to me but to the mainstream culture where I was.

Knowingly to disturb people’s feelings is to be offensive. In Western European society, to go out in public with your face masked is disturbing. Hiding the face is felt to be threatening, and slightly scary, and subliminally this goes way back, and quite deep I think: it certainly frightens children.

Would it be wrong to try to convey to communities in Britain who adopt the full hijab that, though it is a woman’s legal right to dress as she chooses, she should recognise that she’s in a country where many people will find a masked face disturbing, and that she is acting in a culturally inappropriate manner, which may offend? Do the masked women I see in the street in Whitechapel actually know this? I cannot say, because I’ve never spoken to them: or, rather, when I do, they look away and walk away.

This too, in Britain, is rude. Do they know? Shouldn’t they?  TIMES ONLINE