French President Nicolas Sarkozy says the burqa is not welcome in France.

I understand his concern. The head-to-toe covering worn by some Muslim women is considered by most of us in the West as an element of religious oppression. Muslim women who wear the burqa have traditionally been subjugated and the neighbourhood boys have called them ‘sluts’ for removing it.

But nevertheless the burqa is a part of Muslim religious tradition, a conventional dress which those women sincerely believe necessary to the honouring of their religion (and even if that were not so, it wouldn’t remove an ounce of validity from the argument I’m about to make).

As reported by Reuters when the Netherlands considered a burqa ban, a 22-year old Dutch Muslim woman they encountered said, “She’ll resort to wearing a surgical mask to dress in accordance with her religious beliefs.”

Let me be clear. I don’t share those beliefs. I believe that the historical treatment of women in many religions is deplorable and I see the burqa as a symbol of oppression rather than of freedom.

But such concerns are irrelevant to this question. The point is that we have no rightful basis upon which to infringe on their express desire to wear them. And it is here that I believe a better understanding of rights will help us. There is a right to be free to wear what you please. There is also a right to be free from threatened or actual violence from others, whatever your choices about what to wear. All the law needs to do is uphold both these rights, vigourously, in law, and France will have done the right thing. Both making the burqa mandatory, and banning it, remove freedoms.

Let’s look at the opinions of those who think otherwise:

“The burqa is hostile to women, and medieval,” said Geert Wilders, the populist member of the Dutch parliament who first proposed the burqa ban in the Netherlands. “For a woman to walk around on the streets completely covered is an insult to everyone who believes in equal rights.”

But, if I believe in equal rights, then I believe that a woman in the Netherlands has the right to wear whatever she likes. And if that is a burqa, worn because it is her religious tradition or for any reason other than coercion, then what Geert proposes is not about upholding rights at all, but about squashing them. Such a law will be freedom-crushing, not freedom-preserving.

But, you may reply, aren’t these women being intimidated into wearing the burqa? Aren’t they indoctrinated? Aren’t they brainwashed? Can they really be said to be making such decisions of their own free will, from having inherited such an oppressive religion?

There are a few responses to this. Firstly, it is far from clear that actual intimidation is usually the case. The burqa is to Western Muslim women largely what a suit and tie is to a Presbyterian man, what a shaved head is to a Buddhist woman, what a yarmulke is to a Jewish man, what an apron was to a 1940’s housewife. Nobody ever advocated the banning of the apron on the basis that it represented the repression of the role of women in society (even though many now would agree that that was the case).

Banning the garment wasn’t seen as the answer!

Second, indoctrination is not at all unusual or uncommon. The vast majority of religious people are in my opinion, to a significant degree, ‘indoctrinated’. I have extensive personal experience of seeing the scale to which religious people are controlled through guilt, through fear of ostracism, through positive and negative reinforcement, through liturgical routine; the list goes on and on. It isn’t that big a secret. And it isn’t that big a deal either, to be honest. Many people are delighted to be indoctrinated! It makes them feel comfortable and secure, they choose to reject any bid to ‘liberate’ them from it, and its effects are normally fairly benign, though of course I’m not saying this always the case with the more radical Islamist cultures. Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that a completely anonymous survey of Dutch burqa-wearing women would reveal a strong desire to keep the burqa.

We have no ability and no right to forcibly ‘free’ people’s minds from indoctrination, or even brainwashing; morally we can only ensure that they are free from infringement of their social rights.

Our minds are only our own to free. But our approach to social freedom will give everyone the best chance possible to truly pursue truth and happiness.

And third, if it is the case, as has been alleged, that there are Muslim men or others who would rape or otherwise harm these women for choosing to abandon the burqa, then we have another important right to uphold in addition to the right to wear whatever you like. By adequately, vigourously and consistently prosecuting those who will threaten or cause violence to those who are exercising their rights, we will ensure the maximum level of freedom for everyone. I am amazed at some who have suggested that the Muslim is so violent in this way we don’t know what to do with them. First, that seems a prejudiced generalisation. But: what to do with them? Aren’t equal rights equal? We treat them the same as we do any other criminal.

The burqa is her right. Maybe if France upholds that right strenuously enough – along with all of her others – then people will appreciate freedom enough that the burqa won’t be around for long anyway.