TimesOnline..Squatting next to me is my burka. It looks so innocuous: just a few yards of black fabric. But, my goodness, how oppressive it is, how suffocating, how transforming.
Moved by the plight of Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese woman who faces 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public, I decided to spend a week enveloped in what she should have been wearing.
Out shopping one day, I caught sight of myself in a Knightsbridge store window. Instead of me staring back, I saw a dark, depressed alien. A smudge.
On my first day, I was unaccountably afraid to put on my burka. When I did pluck up courage, I felt suffocated.
Driving to my local station, I felt blinkered, like a racehorse. Walking to the platform, I could hardly breathe: I kept getting my nose out from beneath its shroud for fresh air. I felt weak, and faint and itchy.
I walked to the kiosk to buy coffee, staring at my feet to avoid catching anyone’s eye.
‘Mumble mumble,’ I said to the young man serving.
To his credit – the station is in Somerset, so I’m pretty sure this was the first time he’d encountered the full burka – he didn’t bat an eyelid.
I automatically lifted the cup to my lips. Ah. How on earth do women eat or drink? Later that day, at a coffee shop in Fulham, I sat outside at a table, faced with an insurmountable sandwich.
An Arab man shouted abuse. I have no idea what he was saying – perhaps I shouldn’t have been out on my own, or perhaps eating is a sin – but the interesting point is that during my week in a burka, he was the only person who gave me any abuse whatsoever.
In fact, throughout my lonely journey, I was met with only helping hands and sympathy.
‘I have had so much abuse on the train,’ a British Muslim called Um Abdullah complained on Woman’s Hour. Well, she has obviously never travelled with First Great Western.
On one journey home, after a particularly hot day spent steaming like a suet pudding in Regent’s Park, trying to lick a 99, I wobbled to the buffet carriage and mumbled for a stiff gin and tonic.
‘Would you like ice with that?’ the young woman asked, deadpan. In a cab in West London, I was still called ‘darling’ by the driver.
Getting out of said cab, a passing decorator opened the door and grabbed my shopping – a burka makes you clumsy, slow, fearful because you can’t hear, and helpless; I spent most of the week feeling like a disabled person.
The only odd glances I attracted were from small children and my border collie, who barked like a maniac.
One day, I had lunch with a friend in Primrose Hill. She walked past my table three times. I waved: I seemed to have been struck dumb.
‘How fantastic,’ she said, when she had got over the shock.
‘You don’t have to bother to put on make-up, or wash your hair. How liberating and at least you won’t catch swine flu or be leered at.’
This was a common response from my liberated, much groomed, often scantily clad female friends.
I admit, too, this had been my attitude in the past. Aren’t we equally imprisoned by the pressure to be perpetually exposed? But, having worn my burka, I find that attitude crashingly disrespectful of women such as Lubna Hussein.
In Afghanistan, the burka is known as the ‘chadri’; it became common only when the Taliban came to power.
When I think of the young men who have died fighting the Taliban and the calls to end a war that has ‘nothing to do with us’, I think of how I felt in my mobile prison and remember that, for all those women forced to hide their faces and their bodies, their fight is our fight, too.
The night I finally took off my burka, I wanted to put on make-up, spaghetti straps and the highest shoes I own. All week I’d been wearing scent, so compelling was the need to be feminine.
I was supposed, during my week in purdah, not to expose any offensive ‘toe cleavage’, but I got so hot that I resorted to flipflops – the steam had to escape somehow.
On yet another perfect summer’s day in Hyde Park during my week covered up, I saw a crocodile of schoolchildren. Only the pale moon of the faces of the Muslim girls was exposed.
I know now exactly how they feel: marginalised, objectified, kept box-fresh for the eyes of male relatives.
I find it disgusting that we allow British schoolgirls to be treated in this way.