Saudi veil
The full face veil - or niqab - has been banned in a number of European countriesGetty Images

The full-face veil – known as the niqab but often incorrectly called the burqa – is patriarchal and exploitative. The idea that a Muslim woman has to cover her entire body in order to avoid sexual harassment is insulting to both men and women. It assumes that men are monolithic, unchanging sexual beasts with no autonomy over their desires and that a woman is inherently a sexual object that needs to be covered in order to be considered moral.

It also has little to do with Islam. The majority of Muslim scholars do not consider the niqab to be a religious obligation. In fact, Al-Azhar University, a prestigious Islamic center of learning in Egypt, banned it in 2009. Its leader at the time, the late Imam Tantawi, said: "The face veil is a cultural tradition and has nothing to do with Islam." He is right, of course: although the Quran prescribes modesty, the commandment of a face veil is nowhere to be found.

But Britain should not follow Switzerland and host of other European states by enforcing what has become known as the "burqa ban". As much as I as a Muslim may hate the niqab myself, there are Muslim women who do consider it a religious obligation and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states clearly in Article 18 that the freedom to practice one's religious belief is a fundamental human right.

As long as such a belief does not pose a security threat, the state has no business in policing what people wear. Liberalism, after all, requires tolerating and legally protecting illiberal attitudes. As John Stuart Mill wrote: "Over herself, over her body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

One of the arguments for banning the full face veil is security, but I fear this is a red herring: advances in technology, namely eye-recognition and fingerprint scanning, have already replaced the need of a photo at immigration check points. Equally it is very easy for a niqab wearer to be taken a private area and searched by female security staff. A bank, meanwhile, could rely on retinal scanning to identify clients, rather than photo ID.

Muslims form approximately 4.8% of the population in the UK, out of which only a small percentage are Muslim women who wear the face veil. An outright ban would seem unwarranted in any case.

But it's not only the security threat that concerns people. Many argue that it should be banned die to its inherently patriarchal nature that objectifies women. While I agree that the niqab is patriarchal, it would be hypocritical of us not to acknowledge our complacent approval of excessive nudity that also objectifies women.

"Society is suffused with symbols of male supremacy that treat women as objects. Sex magazines, nude photos, tight jeans — all of these products, arguably, treat women as objects, as do so many aspects of our media culture," says Martha Nussbaum, a professor at the University of Chicago.

So let's not deny our double standards. That our outrage is selective in that it only targets niqab as the epitome of patriarchy seems to suggest that this has little to do with objectification per se and more to do with mistrust and fear of Muslims.

This phobia is perpetuated by the idea that all niqabis are forced to cover their face, and are "oppressed" in need of our saving. While it is true that some niqabis are indeed pressured by conservative families and imams and that this requires our unapologetic opposition, this is by no means representative of all niqabis.

"To me, niqab is a very feminist statement," writes blogger Zainab bint Younis. "By covering my face, by obscuring my physical features from those around me, I am saying: 'I alone own my body, and you have no right to me.' My words, my actions, and my mind take precedence over my body, and no one can coerce me otherwise."

It is, furthermore, an Orientalist assumption that niqabis cannot chose to wear the niqab on their own, and that they must be coerced by somebody else. To be clear, every one of us is influenced in some way by societal pressures. So, let's not pretend that our choices are not, in one way or another, influenced by external factors.

For example, what of the ridiculously high standards of beauty our society expects women to adhere to in order to feel validated? Should we ban breast implants because some men might force their wives to undergo such a procedure? Clearly not.

The fact of the matter is, liberal democracies have never considered our personal distastes to outlaw attire. If a state was justified in enforcing attire compatible with the values of its citizens, there would be no moral ground for any of us to oppose the legal enforcement of the hijab in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

None of this is to defend the niqab, per se. As I've made it abundantly clear, I find it to be sexist and will continue to challenge the assumptions behind it. Nor is it to invalidate the experiences of Muslim women who are forced to wear the niqab. It is imperative that Muslims challenge the imams who say that the face veil is obligatory in Islam.

My argument is that it is as oppressive to enforce an attire as it is to ban it. It takes away the autonomy of a woman to dress however she deems fit, and could be detrimental to integration and a positive environment that all of us deserve. Proud believers in liberty, secularism and democracy that we are, we cannot let our personal distastes violate the rights of others.

As intersectional feminist Kenna Sharp says: "Nudity empowers some. Modesty empowers some. Different things empower different women, and it's not your place to tell her which one it is."

Ro Waseem writes about progressive Islam on his blog. He has been published in New Statesman, Huffington Post, OnFaith, & Tikkun, among others. He tweets @Quranalyzeit