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Why won't women's advocates support banning the burka?

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Thursday, 7 September 2017


I cannot think of any (legal) custom, that is more confronting to Australians or more overtly signifies rejection of our values, than the practice of women having their faces secreted by a burka or niqab. Invariably such head garments, now not uncommon in parts of our major cities, are part of an attire that covers the woman's body entirely from head to toe.

The wearing of such attire signals a subservient, unseen, and largely domestic role for the wearer in society. Such an outcome is the absolute antithesis of what the feminist movement and women's advocates say they seek for women. They ought to speak up, and with passion. Puzzlingly, the women's movement seems entirely absent from the debate.

The burka and niqab truly are medieval garments, and present a physical and psychological barrier to the wearer engaging with society either economically or socially. Face coverings in public are also a security risk, and tend to be associated with fundamentalism, and sometimes Islamic extremism.

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The legality of the burka and niqab in Australia facilitates control and subjugation of women and girls from a minority of Islamic families, that are fundamentalist, authoritarian and masculinist. This is because it is easy to monitor the body coverings worn by females, and it is obvious if a woman ceases to cover her face (whereupon family and community pressure can be brought to bear). The garb itself isolates these females from the rest of society, and is widely perceived as a signal that the wearer seeks minimal interaction with those outside her family.

The justification for body coverings relates to societal requirements for modesty. Even secular societies require covering of private parts in the company of others. Islamic mores go further.

Australia's most senior Muslim cleric has blamedimmodestly dressed women, who don't wear some type of Islamic headdress, for being preyed on by men. He likened them to abandoned "meat" that attracts voracious animals. He was reported as saying that women were "weapons" used by Satan to control men. More broadly, the quest for "modesty" in the most conservative Islamic societies can go as far as keeping girls at home, and largely away from public places. At home in those societies, the only males that females may interact with are close direct relatives.

It is saidthat a veiled wife in traditional Islamic societies signifies her inaccessibility to other men, and removes her power as a "temptress". A woman therefore (according to such a culture) needs to be controlled in order to protect a man's honour and maintain peace in society. This notion is the exact opposite to legal and social practice in Australia, where men (and not women) are held responsible for controlling men's sexual urges.

Extreme Islamists such as Islamic State enforce the full veil in public places, and the (less confronting) hijab (which covers the head and chest but not the face) is obligatory according to the Muslim Brotherhood. Extremists allegedly aim to shift Islam away from a private theological belief and worship, to an ideology and political movement that aims for a state-sponsored, theocratic, social, political, judicial and economic system. With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the burka and niqab have become political symbols for this ideology.

Islamic dress is also said to be symbolic for many less extreme Muslims. We are toldthat face coveringsare not a requirement of Islam itself, are not worn by most Muslim women, andare only the norm in the most repressive societies. Turkey's former secular government even outlawed the headscarf for civil servants and public universities in 1980, citing the need for the separation of state and religion. In 2011, Turkey's Islamist government lifted the ban.

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A survey from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research conducted in seven Muslim-majority countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey), found that most people prefer that a woman completely cover her hair, but not necessarily her face. Only in Turkey and Lebanon did more than one-in-four think it was appropriate for a woman to not cover her head at all in public.

Face-covering Islamic clothing is already banned in many countries, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria,Latvia, parts of Switzerland, Chad, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Gabon, and Morocco. Germany and Norway are said to be working on bans. The European Court of Human Rights upheldthe French ban in 2014 after a case was brought by a 24-year-old French woman who argued that the ban violated her freedom of religion and expression.

A majority (56.3 per cent) of Australians believe the burka should be banned in public, according to a poll conducted by Sky News/ReachTel. The survey found that 43.6 per cent of respondents "strongly" support a ban on the burka in public, while another 12.7 per cent also support the idea. 12.3 per cent were against a ban and 18.9 cent "strongly" opposed the idea. Another 12.5 per cent were undecided. A Muslim woman, who refused to take off her burqa in a Sydney court to give evidence, was admonished by the judge, who refused to hear her evidence unless she revealed her face

I support banning face coverings (like the burka and niqab) in all public places, not just on security grounds, but also because they are a means of oppressing women, and because they offend Australian values. I also think that balaclavas should not normally be worn in public (for security reasons) either. I would draw the line at facial coverings, and I support the legality of all other Islamic clothing, including the hijab and headscarf, on religious and individual liberty grounds.

So why are a range of players in Australia, including the feminist movement, the left of politics, and many "wet" liberals, so unwilling to curb the wearing of the burka and niqab, despite widespread support for such a ban?

Attorney General, George Brandis, reportedly was close to tears while criticising Senator Pauline Hanson for weaking a burka in Parliament. He claimed she was attacking the Islamic faith and undermining relations with the Muslim community. Senator Brandis ruled out banning the burka and was given a standing ovation by Labor and the Greens, though his Coalition colleagues mostly did not join the ovation.

The main arguments put forward against banning the burka and niqab are that such a ban would violate freedom of religion and individual liberties. Such arguments overlook centuries of oppressive cultural practices against women, underwritten by religion in Muslim societies. Given that neither Labor, the Greens, nor the women's movement are noted for their support of religion or liberties such as free speech [note their conspicuous lack of support for repeal of Section 18(c) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975], one has to wonder whether the stated reasons are the real reasons.

While a ban on facial coverings does limit personal liberties, it must also be pointed out that failing to implement such a ban also affects the freedoms of those Islamic women that don't want to wear a burka or niqab. I also see no evidence that the women's advocacy movement has developed a newfound commitment to freedom of expression or religious practice.

I suspect that Left Wing opposition to banning face covering garments (and the position of the women's advocacy movement by virtue of its broad association with the Left) has more to do with political considerations. In particular, the Islamic communities within suburbia in our major cities seem to have struck an alliance with Labor and the Greens, which is reflected in general permissiveness on the part of the left on issues like border protection and defence of the more extreme aspects of multiculturalism.

The Left's defence of the burka and niqab (Islamic rights) also does not sit well with its championing of same-sex marriage, which is more vehemently opposed by the Islamic community than by virtually any other religious denomination. (On ABC's "The Drum", Ali Kadri, spokesman for the Islamic Council of Queensland and the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said his community was stuck with the choice of offending political allies or siding with critics, and the result had been silence on the issue of same-sex marriage.) In my experience, educated Muslims are nearly all opposed to face coverings but don't speak out either. I suspect that they also don't want to offend their allies (other Muslims).

Australia already takes a stand against some of the extremes of Islamic practices, where they are inconsistent with Australian values. This includes bans on female circumcision, on polygamy, and on forced or under-age marriage. Australia should also take a stand and ban the wearing of face covering garments in public places.

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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