The French are currently debating whether or not to ban the burqa, while some in the UK would like to ban it here. So far, almost all the debate has been about religion and social cohesion. Last week, Jenni Murray (on Woman's Hour) interviewed UKIP's Nigel Farage and Salma Yaqoob from Respect, whose views are diametrically opposite. It was disappointing that the issue of women's health wasn't even mentioned. It seldom is.
Vitamin D is essential to good health and requires exposure to sunlight for its synthesis. It can be obtained as a dietary supplement but we get most vitamin D from sunlight on the skin.
Before the 1956 Clean Air Act, British skies were full of pollutants from domestic and industrial coal fires. Children were born with rickets, a condition that causes severe bone deformities, as a result of their mothers' vitamin D deficiency, or they developed it when very young. After the act, rickets was virtually eliminated in the UK. Now it's on the rise again, partly due to inactive, indoor lifestyles, and partly due to the burqa. Women who cover themselves from head to foot in dark garments, or who stay indoors in poorly lit homes, risk not only their own health but that of their children. Areas where there are large Muslim communities report the greatest increases in cases of rickets. There's also an increase in cases of osteoporosis and other conditions resulting from vitamin D deficiency.
While pro and anti-burqa arguments fly back and forth, with opinion divided about a ban, it seems to me that there's another way to deal with the problem.
Most people know that smoking and drinking too much alcohol are bad for you, and they're bad for the baby during pregnancy. Most people know that a healthy diet and exposure to sunlight is essential for good health. There are public health campaigns on smoking and alcohol, but efforts to educate people about vitamin D deficiency have been patchy and half-hearted. A full scale, in your face campaign to persuade Muslims to abandon the burqa is overdue. Unlike smoking and alcohol, which are addictive, burqa-wearing is due to religion, or a particularly backward type of religion that's all about sexual repression. Why should women and children suffer serious health problems because of these daft ideas, and why should the NHS have to deal with avoidable conditions as a result of them?
The link between wearing the burqa and conditions due to vitamin D deficiency have been well known for some time in Pakistan and in Middle Eastern countries. I can't help feeling that government inaction may be due to an unwillingness to cause "offence" to Muslims, the sort who are quick to take offence. Male Muslims take offence, while Muslim women, including those who adopt the burqa voluntarily, suffer the consequences.
Bugger the Burkha; Lancashire Telegraph - 56 cases of rickets; The Food Standards Agency - Vitamin D; Vitamin D deficiency in UK Asian families; Prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency in South Asia; Wearing the burqa is neither Islamic nor socially acceptable - Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Illustration (c) M Nelson 2010