I used to think that covering the whole face except for the eyes was the normal Islamic custom (in a week in Afghanistan I hardly saw a woman’s face) and so was surprised to find that even in Syria, the most culturally conservative of the Middle Eastern countries I’ve just visited, not a tenth of the women seem to cover their faces. Most (by no means all) cover their heads, but you don’t get that closed, turning-away feeling you sense along the Whitechapel Road in the East End of London. In the Damascus streets, women in all-women groups, and women with men, chat and laugh; and I saw to be true (what some Muslims have already told me) that the full hijab cannot be considered a religious duty, but is simply a cultural feature of some societies that are Muslim, but not others.
If so, how far should we tolerate it? Spitting is a cultural feature in China but we discourage it here. In Syria I took my shoes off to enter mosques, though that is not in my culture; and wouldn’t have worn clothing like skimpy shorts or vests, or drunk alcohol in the streets: practices offensive not to me but to the mainstream culture where I was.