“The burqa is a war on women”, Virginia Hausegger tells us in a recent article for The Age, insisting that “The burqa has nothing to do with ethnic diversity” and demanding that Australia “grow up” and seriously consider “the call to ban the burqa”. In one respect, Hausegger cuts to the heart of the burqa-issue, which is war and women. The burqa, however, is not the “war on women”, banning the burqa is.
Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi claims that the burqa is “a symbol of female repression and Islamic culture”. Other critics, such as Hausegger, believe that it disempowers and subjugates women, making them second-class citizens who are ashamed of their female form. Few have commented on the paucity of female Muslim voices in this debate. Few have also perceived the irony of giving predominately male government officials the power to dictate how women should dress in order to “liberate” them.
The discourse of “saving women”, particularly “ethnic” women, has long-been used by the West as a justification for war, racism and, not least of all, the subjugation of women. We should not forget that our moral cause for invading Afghanistan was, according to Laura Bush, to give Afghani women the right to wear nail polish.
Similarly, in the nineteenth century, the racism and injustices of Western colonialism were supported by missionaries and other associated do-gooders’ desires to civilise the natives and, particularly, clothe and control their women in an effort to turn them into model Victorian wives. Of course, these societies were not egalitarian paradises to begin with.
All cultures are guilty of oppressing women, but we need to remember that this includes the West. In her introduction to the 21st anniversary edition of The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer writes “Twenty years ago it was important to stress the right to [female] sexual expression … now it is even more important to stress the right to … chastity, to defer physical intimacy”. This is particularly relevant in relation to the burqa. Less than a hundred years ago, women in the Western world fought for the right to wear short skirts, trousers and bikinis. Today, it seems, women must now fight for the right to cover themselves up.
Don’t get me wrong - the freedom to wear short skirts, tight jeans and bikinis is integral. Which is precisely why I, as a mixed race, non-Muslim Australian woman, am against the burqa-ban. The State simply has no business telling women how to dress and neither do men or other women. A woman should have the freedom to wear a short skirt without fear of punishment. And, if I decided to give the minis a break and swathe myself in a burqa no politician or government official should be there, Big Brother-esqe, threatening to fine me.
Clearly, the campaign to ban the burqa is not about protecting women’s rights. If it were, not only would it respect a woman’s right to freedom of expression and to clothe her own body, it would not aim to criminalise and punish the women involved. Furthermore, if our society really cared so much about the equality, freedom, and safety of women, it would be directing this energy and outrage into developing paid parental leave, preventing domestic violence and protecting women in vulnerable social positions.
So what is really underlying the drive to ban the burqa in Australia? Not the high ideals of liberty and gender equality, but nationalism, fear of difference and a desire to demonstrate dominance over the Other. In this case, the Other is not Muslim women, the Other is Muslim men.
Political and cultural sociologist Joane Nagel points out that “women often are considered to be the bearers and incarnations of national and masculine honour”. As a result, women are both punished by men of their own ethnicity for any perceived disloyalty, and targeted by men of other ethnicities as a means of injuring their national or ethnic group. The women’s own choices or beliefs are ignored. This can be seen in the disappointing absence of Australian Muslim women’s voices in the coverage of the burqa debate. It can also be seen in the rhetoric of both Western and Muslim men.
Sheik Hilali’s description of Australian women as “uncovered meat” in 2006 is essentially the equivalent of Bernardi’s push to criminalise Muslim women who wear the burqa. Both men portray themselves as wanting to protect their communities, yet both victimise women and dictate how they should behave. While Australians were quick to identify Hilali’s remarks as a misogynistic attack on our way of life, the targeting of Muslim women manages to hide behind the skirts of Edwardian feminism and the patent leather boots of liberal democracy.
Undeniably, there are women around the world, and in Australia, who are oppressed. Some of these women are Muslim and many of them are not. Some of these women may be forced to wear the burqa while others choose to do so. For the women who are victims of coercion, criminalising them is not going to result in their liberty. In her article “Stand up against the burka”, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown gives us the example of a woman in Italy who was fined for being fully veiled. The result was that her husband now says he “will keep her indoors because he can't have other men looking at her”.
Alibhai-Brown is an example of a Muslim woman who opposes the burqa, which, in Hausegger’s eyes, justifies its ban. In a 2009 article for The Independent Alibhai-Brown states she “abhors the burqa” and refers to it as a “disease”. “Muslim women who show their hair are becoming an endangered species”, she tells us. “We must fight back.”
Alibhai-Brown is within her rights to criticise the burqa and to implore others to reconsider their reasons for wearing it. She is within her rights to abhor it and to tell the world of her abhorrence. But does that mean we should make it illegal? Alibhai-Brown herself exhorts us to “articulate objections to reactionary life choices”, yet she stops short of advocating an outright prohibition. She also draws attention to the fact that “right-wing think tanks and President Sarkozy of France scapegoat Muslims for political gain”.
Whether one believes that the burqa truly oppresses women, or that underlying fear and nationalism have caused the proposed ban, it is clear that outlawing the burqa doesn’t solve anything. Prohibiting the burqa criminalises women who may be victims and strips away the human rights of women who are not. One of the cornerstones of Australia’s liberal democratic system is the freedom of cultural and religious expression. Picking and choosing which forms of expression are acceptable may be a sign that our basic liberties are being eroded. All things considered, to ban the burqa is in fact to wage a war on women.