Sinead Ryan: Woman in head-to-toe burqa who held me up in traffic
I'm driving long enough to give learners a wide berth when I come across them. Generally, I'll hold back rather than overtake because we all remember the embarrassment and fear of cars whizzing past us while we're doing a terrifying 30kph and trying to manage a clutch and accelerator at the same time.
The other day I couldn't help it, though. Driving behind a small car, its L plates prominently displayed, it was shuddering to a halt and jerkily taking off again. I would be safer ahead than behind, I thought.
Passing (slowly) at a wide angle, I nearly crashed into the ditch. There in the driver's seat was a woman (I presume) clad head to toe in a full burqa. Not just the burqa, but the niqab too, which means her face was fully covered, with a thick grilled cloth in front of her eyes. Her husband/brother/father was her passenger seat teacher, one imagines, since anyone that orthodox wouldn't have a non-related male beside her, but I really got a fright. There is no way, under any circumstances, that that lady could possibly see well enough to drive. She would have zero peripheral vision and very little straight out in front. A child running out in to the road, a cyclist or a close over-taker and she wouldn't have a chance -- and neither would they. She was, quite simply, traffic blind.
Now, we've kicked to touch the whole burqa argument while everyone does a careful PC dance around the issue. Junior Minister Conor Lenihan was charged with dealing with it as it applied to schools -- after a Gorey principal begged for guidelines for his school after Wexford muslim Liam Egan wanted his female children to attend in hijabs.
Mr Lenihan wrote a report which concluded that "there are different views held on the matter". You think? However, it went on to say that the Department "does not recommend the wearing of clothing in the classroom which obscures a facial view and creates an artificial barrier between pupil and teacher. Such clothing hinders proper communication", which would seem to give some guidance. So, if it hinders proper communication in a classroom, surely it's blindingly obvious that it hinders proper vision in traffic. Now, a child in maths class wearing a black tent isn't going to harm anyone, but I sure as hell don't want a grown-up driving blind when I'm on the motorway.
I have no idea if this woman was doing anything illegal because I cannot find a single piece of legislation or any guideline that tells me she was. Or wasn't.
Indeed, presumably the logic is to wait until there's a serious incident before being forced to deal with it. It would be our usual tack.
Other countries have been more progressive. Last month a 31-year-old woman was fined for wearing a face-covering veil in France.
Her "reduced field of vision" was cited on the ticket. Naturally she is suing the police after accusing them of discrimination. "I unveiled myself so I could be identified. He had no right to give me a penalty notice," she was quoted as saying of the gendarme. That of course, is missing the point. While identification is important, it is the danger posed that is the bigger issue.
In Canada and, wait for it, even Kuwait, driving in full Islamic garb is banned. Belgium too, although they've extended the ban to all public places.
The niqab is not an essential part of Islamic dress. Indeed, it is only worn by a minority of muslim women. So leaving aside the PC argument, can we please just ban it for health and safety reasons? Is that too much to ask?