A cabinet minister has delivered a staunch defence of a woman's right to wear a burka.
As debate intensified across Europe on banning the controversial Muslim garment from public places, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said women were 'empowered' by the freedom to wear the face coverings.
Her comments came after her colleague, Immigration Minister Damian Green, resisted demands from within the Tory party to ban the burka, which critics claim is a symbol of the oppression of women.
Opposed to a ban: Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said women were 'empowered' by the freedom to wear
Mr Green said a ban would be 'rather un-British' and run contrary to the conventions of a 'tolerant and mutually respectful society'.
This is despite a YouGov survey which found that 67 per cent of voters wanted the wearing of full-face veils to be outlawed. France's lower house of parliament has overwhelmingly approved a ban on wearing burka-style Islamic veils, and Spain and Belgium have similar votes in the pipeline.
Tory MPs who back a ban include Philip Hollobone, who has tabled a private member's Bill that would make it illegal for anyone to cover his or her face in public.
Mr Hollobone, the MP for Kettering, said that he would refuse to hold any constituency meetings with women wearing burkas.
He said: 'This is Britain. We are not a Muslim country. Covering your face in public is strange, and to many people both intimidating and offensive.'
But Mrs Spelman yesterday made the counter-argument that wearing a burka is important for women's rights. Normally, the burka is defended on the grounds of religious freedom, but the minister made what appeared to be a feminist argument for the face-covering.
She said: 'I don't, living in this country as a woman, want to be told what I can and can't wear. I've been out to Afghanistan and I think I understand much better as a result of actually visiting why a lot of Muslim women want to wear the burka.
'It is part of their culture, it is part of understanding that they choose to go out in the burka and I think those that live in this country, if they choose to wear a burka, should be free to do so.
'We are a free country, we attach importance to people being free and for a woman it is empowering to be able to choose each morning when you wake up what you wear.'
French parliamentarians voted last week to outlaw full-face veils, including burkas, in public.
Mr Green said he did not think that the French vote for a ban would have an impact on immigration into Britain, as Muslim women move here instead.
He said: 'I stand personally on the feeling that telling people what they can and can't wear, if they're just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do. We're a tolerant and mutually respectful society.
'There are times, clearly, when you've got to be able to identify yourself, and people have got to be able to see your face, but I think it's very unlikely and it would be undesirable for the British Parliament to try and pass a law dictating what people wore.
'I think very few women in France actually wear the burka. They [the French parliament] are doing it for demonstration effects.
'The French political culture is very different. They are an aggressively secular state. They can ban the burka, they ban crucifixes in schools and things like that.
'We have schools run explicitly by religions. I think there's absolutely no read-across to immigration policy-from what the French are doing about the burka.'
The new head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Farooq Murad, said that Britain was the most welcoming country in Europe for Muslims.
He pointed to the spread of mosques and sharia, or Islamic law, as positive signs of the greater freedom Muslims are given in this country.
Catherine Heseltine from the Muslim Public Affairs Committee said MPs should not waste their time discussing a ban.
She said: 'Britain is a free country. We value our freedoms and we don't want MPs or the government telling British citizens what they can or can't wear.
'How does it hurt anybody else if a woman chooses to wear a small piece of cloth across her face?
'Quite frankly, MPs, there's a £160billion debt; shouldn't they be busier worrying about what they're going to do about that, than a small piece of cloth that a few women choose to wear?'
Under the French ban, which is expected to be approved by the country's Senate in September, a woman wearing the burka can be stopped on the street by police and ordered to a police station, where she will be compelled to remove the veil. The woman faces a possible fine. Muslim men who are deemed to have 'forced' their wives or daughters to wear the burka will also be fined.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that the burka 'is not welcome' in his country. He claims that it is 'oppressive' to women and reduces them to 'servitude'.
He said: 'The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.'
Source : dailymail.co.uk