The appropriateness of mini skirts and face veils are culturally dependent. The fury that was sparked when a Sheik criticised the former is in sharp contrast to community approval questioning the appropriateness of the face veil. This reveals an underlying racist core in Australia.
That’s one of the main conclusions to be drawn from the furious response to the comments by Muslim cleric Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali that females who wear skimpy clothing are inviting sexual advances. Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward has even called for the Sheik to be deported for the comments.
Of course the comments by the Sheik are impertinent and as Goward correctly notes, Australia has moved on from that thinking a long time ago. Females can wear whatever they want and if that causes offence or a bit of over-excitement to some blokes, that’s a problem the blokes need to deal with.
What one wears is a paradigm self-regarding act. And to this end, the limits of such conduct were nailed about 150 years ago by famous British Philosopher John Stuart Mill: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”
There is no need to deport the Sheik. All he needs to do is come to one of my philosophy classes. We will need to find a big room, though. Many Australians, including some of our leading politicians, need to come to at least the first couple of lectures. The acquiescence by most Australians with the comments of the Prime Minister John Howard and Treasurer Peter Costello that the Muslim face veil is confronting underlies a disturbing form of relativism that reveals Australia’s racist underbelly.
These double standards aren’t confined to Australia. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called for worldwide debate on the wearing of face veils by Muslim women. The debate is becoming so intense that chairman of the UK Commission for Racial Equality said that the issue risked sparking "fire" on the streets.
According to Blair, the face veil should be dropped because it is a mark of separation and makes non-Muslims feel uncomfortable. That’s nonsense. If people feel uncomfortable about face veils, that’s their petty problem.
It is also absurd to suggest that we have a right to view the faces of those with whom we come into contact. The face is just another body part and no more required to be exposed or concealed than breasts, hands and belly buttons. It is simply a Western convention that we tend to expose our faces. But there is nothing about the human condition that requires facial familiarity to forge an integrated society. A quick visit to Saudi Arabi and the United Arab Emirates provides conclusive proof of that.
The telephone also lays to rest any suggestion that seeing a person’s face is essential for effective communication.
Blair has labelled the face veil as a move towards voluntary apartheid. On this score, he is half right. In fact it is involuntary apartheid, brought about by his intolerance to difference.
The key to a more integrated and harmonious multicultural society is for people of all religions and races to mix more. This requires, at the minimum, knowledge of a person’s religious and cultural background and a willingness to open one’s mind to different perspectives.
The lessons of the past teach us that greater awareness of our supposed differences serves to unite us. The more tightly certain types of information is guarded, the more entrenched is likely to remain its significance and the prejudice that it can induce.
Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is the author of 20 books and over 100 refereed scholarly articles. He is not connected with any political party or other interest group. He is the author of Australian Human Rights Law (forthcoming). Mirko is the author of Being Happy and Dealing with Moral Dilemmas.