It's a controversial time for British women to be wearing the hijab, the basic Muslim headscarf. Last month, Belgium became the first European country to pass legislation to ban the burka (the most concealing of Islamic veils), calling it a "threat" to female dignity, while France looks poised to follow suit. In Italy earlier this month, a Muslim woman was fined €500 (£430) for wearing the Islamic veil outside a post office.
And yet, while less than 2 per cent of the population now attends a Church of England service every week, the number of female converts to Islam is on the rise. At the London Central Mosque in Regent's Park, women account for roughly two thirds of the "New Muslims" who make their official declarations of faith there – and most of them are under the age of 30.
Conversion statistics are frustratingly patchy, but at the time of the 2001 Census, there were at least 30,000 British Muslim converts in the UK. According to Kevin Brice, of the Centre for Migration Policy Research, Swansea University, this number may now be closer to 50,000 – and the majority are women. "Basic analysis shows that increasing numbers of young, university-educated women in their twenties and thirties are converting to Islam," confirms Brice.
"Our liberal, pluralistic 21st-century society means we can choose our careers, our politics – and we can pick and choose who we want to be spiritually," explains Dr Mohammad S. Seddon, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Chester. We're in an era of the "religious supermarket", he says.