May 2011 saw Elizabeth Windsor visiting the Republic of Ireland, the first visit of a British sovereign since George V visited in 1911. An apology of sorts – extraordinarily muted, considering the subject matter – was given for the two hundred years of violence, killing, subterfuge, lies, surveillance and terrorism inflicted by the British occupation on the citizens of the Republic of Ireland during ‘the troubles’. Over that time, laws were passed which were a precursor to the so-called ‘anti-terrorist’ laws now covering the whole of the United Kingdom and replicated in countries around the world, including Australia, which legitimate the arrest and holding in communicado of persons ‘suspected’ of terrorist tendencies.
Referring to the lukewarm sentiments expressed on the occasion of the royal visit, Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, said: “We don’t want to wait for two hundred years for an apology for what is being done to the people of Muslim faith under the laws and policies of governments purporting to be engaged in a ‘war on terror’”. She was speaking at a London conference run by the Enough Coalition and entitled "Confronting Anti-Muslim Hatred in Britain and Europe". Her words are applicable in respect of governments in Australia, which have aped the U.S. and U.K. in adopting laws in the name of ‘terrorism’. These laws reflect and promote a rise in racism and xenophobia directed in the main against persons of the Muslim faith, and those who look as if they may be adherents.
In Australia as in the U.K. and Europe, this trend is evident in attacks on multiculturalism. It is exemplified by the banning of ‘cover’ being worn by women in France, Belgium, parts of Italy and Barcelona, or in demands that governments engage in the outlawing of the scarf, the niqab, the burqah or equivalent forms of cover worn by some Muslim women. In Australia, Senator Cory Bernadi has said that a ban must proceed, in order to protect the Australian community from robbers and ‘ne’er do wells’ wrapping themselves up in burqahs to escape detection. How a miscreant could escape amidst the billowing skirts of the garment hanging about their legs and interfering with their perambulation is mystifying. Nonetheless, his call has been joined by Fred Nile, member of the NSW Legislative Council and leader of a political party known as the Christian Democrats. Other political voices have been raised in favour of a ban, although the countervailing position is currently holding favour. No legislation appears, as yet at least, to be in prospect.
At the heart of this ‘cover’ debate lie women’s bodies and the control or wish to control women. Ironically, some who support the ‘cover’ ban do so on the ground – as they put it – that burqah-wearing women are under the control of husbands who dictate that they should be covered in public. This is President Sarkozy’s justification for the French position. Yet simultaneously with this assertion of women living under the diktat of their male spouses or partners, such proponents seek to assert state control of these very same women through laws dictating that they should not be covered in the street or anywhere else that they may be seen by strangers.
At the London conference, Kenza Drider spoke in fluent French, with the aid of an English-speaking interpreter, about her experience as a French citizen living in Paris. Recently, she was arrested by French police for refusing to remove her full veil in public. She wears the niqab, which covers her face leaving her eyes alone exposed to the world. She spoke of the Islamophobic nature of the law that says it is directed against any covering of the face, but is being employed to harass women. Believing that the ban is a direct attack upon the rights of all Muslim women living or travelling in France, whether citizens or not, Kenza Drider has decided not to pay obeisance to it. This she sees as an assertion of her rights as a French citizen and a woman entitled to the right of liberty, the right of equality, and the right of fraternity and sisterhood.
French women who support the ban, stating that this accords with feminist principles of secularism, did not speak with Kenza Drider or members of her community before adopting their position. In answer to a question at the conference, she stated that they have not discussed the law with her, nor its application or its affect upon the ability of Muslim women to follow their interpretation of their faith and to move about in public without restraint. That the law constrains women and would require them to remain isolated in their homes has not been on the agenda of French feminists favouring Sarkozy’s position. That it would leave women at the isolated mercy of controlling husbands is a profound irony – for if the husbands are so controlling, the ban effectively requires women to remain locked into a suffocating existence with a man who, according to the rationale for the law, is already dictating to his wife the terms of her going out of the house.
The French feminist agenda that wants the ban, and wants it enforced, does not extend the argument to its logical conclusion, which is that if men control women’s dress, then they will control women in other ways, even to the extent of committing acts of bodily harm including criminal assault at home and other forms of domestic violence. Nor does it comprehend that if women, like Kenza Drider, move out of the home and into the public space whilst covered, this will inevitably bring violence into those women’s lives, this time in that public space. The ban contains the possibility that members of the public will see the niqab or other cover as a provocation and the law as giving them the right to demand that women uncover. If any woman demurs, then comes the possibility of physical attack and attempts to remove the cover by force. Already, reports have been received, some publicised by the media, of such instances of violence. For the police, the law provides a possibility for assault and arrest by force. Although the hope remains that police will not engage in violence, this exists also as an unfortunate reality.
Activists in Britain and Germany have determined not to stand by. A principal resolution of the London conference was that defenders of women’s right to wear clothing of choice should take action to support Kenza Drider and her sisters. The Peace Rides of the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s were called upon as an example: ‘Let’s emulate those activists, and take a Peace Train to Paris,’ said one speaker.
The conference resolved to organise coaches, buses, cars and trains of supporters to travel to Paris and, in defiance of the ban, to wear face-cover. Those travelling will need to conceal their cover at the border – for customs officials will no doubt employ the law to turn them away, refusing them entry.
Yet this in itself touches upon a point made at the conference by Lindsey German, who said: “There is a growing phenomenon in Europe, which is promoting border control, division and isolationism.” The ban on ‘cover’ is a part of this phenomenon, she went on, advocating that supporters of freedom and human rights should refuse to accept these new rules of containment: the notion that people should remain in one place, ‘secure’ in their isolation amongst people who are ‘just like them’. Those who contend that people of the Muslim faith dwell in distinct communities, shutting themselves away from outside communication, are - through the ban - engaging in action that promotes defensiveness amongst people of similar backgrounds, promoting the cutting off of people from each other and from the possibility of communication, understanding and the benefits of multicultural life.
‘Unless there is organised resistance,’ Lindsey German concluded, ‘laws and policies that are set to divide us will succeed in their aim.’ For the Enough Coalition and its supporters, the Peace Rides to Paris are one form of resistance.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.