The burqa: reject the fake 'feminism' of the right

October 8, 2010
Kiraz Janicke's '˜Burqa Revolution'.
Kiraz Janicke's '˜Burqa Revolution'.

On September 23, the Daily Telegraph reported on a wall mural in the Sydney inner-west suburb of Newtown by artist Sergio Redegalli with the slogan “Say no to burqas”.

Redegalli’s mural has sparked protests by local residents who have condemned it as racist. Sydney Socialist Alliance activist Kiraz Janicke says Redegalli’s piece “has no other value than to promote racism”. She has responded with an artwork of her own — a submission to the Live Red Art Awards, titled “Burqa revolution”.

Below, Janicke argues that banning the burqa (a veil covering the entire body, with a mesh over the eyes), or other forms of Islamic dress worn by some Muslim women that cover the face, will hinder true women’s liberation.

* * *

“Burqa revolution” is a contribution to the current debate about the burqa and the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim extremism, not only in Europe and around the world, but also here in Australia.

In the New South Wales Legislative Council, arch-fundamentalist Christian MLC Fred Nile has introduced a private member’s bill seeking to ban the wearing of the burqa.

This anti-Muslim extremism is a product of a sustained ideological campaign of Islamophobia by the media and mainstream politicians — not only to bolster support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also to scapegoat a sector of the population for the growing social problems stemming from the crisis of capitalism itself.

The debate surrounding the burqa cannot be abstracted from this context.

A recurring theme of this ideological campaign to convince us that Muslims are "alien" to the "Western way of life” is that Islam oppresses women.

Thus we have “feminist” arguments being used to justify the bloody war in Afghanistan, which has killed thousands of innocent women and children, as a mission to "liberate" women, and hypocritical rhetoric about "defending women's rights" from politicians who at the same time are attacking women's rights and services here in Australia.

Racialisation of sexism

Not only would banning the burqa constitute a violation of religious freedom, it is also racist because it holds only one sector of society responsible for sexism: Muslims. This false counter-position of Islam (as an oppressor of women’s rights) vs the enlightened West (as defenders of women’s rights), serves to distract from the inherent sexism of our own society.

The height of hypocrisy is reached by those who, claiming to defend women's rights, have attacked Muslim women. The racist thugs at Cronulla during the 2005 riots, in their effort to “defend women”, chased down a 14-year-old girl and ripped off her hijab.

As US socialist and feminist Sharon Smith argues, “veiled or unveiled, women’s oppression is universal”.

Some progressives and feminists may find “Burqa revolution” confronting because it portrays a woman demanding the right to wear a burqa — something commonly viewed as symbol of women’s subjugation.

However, as a recent 2000-strong rally in western Sydney supporting the right to wear a burqa shows, for many Muslim women wearing a burqa, niqab or hijab is an affirmation of their identity and an act of protest against the prevailing Islamophobia.

My artwork challenges the argument that banning the burqa can contribute to women’s liberation. Liberation is not something that can be imposed, but must be won through a process of self-determination.

If you accept that the state has the right to ban the burqa, then you also accept that it has the right to force women to wear it — it’s the same logic! Either way, allowing the state to regulate what women wear takes away their agency.

There is no contradiction in campaigning against attempts to ban the burqa and supporting those women who are fighting against being forced to wear it overseas. It’s about a woman’s right to choose.

Some women are obliged by social, religious or family pressures to wear a burqa or similar forms of Islamic dress, but state intervention is not the solution. Banning women from wearing symbolic clothing will not change their status or the underlying pressures upon them. Real equality for women requires economic independence and the ability to make a full range of choices about the way they live their lives.

“Burqa revolution” is also a message to the left that it needs to be inclusive. By falling in behind a ban, the left would cut itself off from having a discussion with Muslims who are our allies in the campaigns against racism and war and from winning them to our perspectives through democratic debate.

Anyone who truly supports women's rights needs to reject the fake "feminism" of the right. The best way to fight sexism, like racism, is to encourage women and oppressed minorities to fight to defend their rights through collective action.

Building the movement to stop the wars in the Middle East and to reject the sexist and racist propaganda of the politicians and media is what will in reality create a better world for women, and for all.


Legal restrictions are not the right way to deal with dress codes. However, i don't see why we should not speak out against this reversion to feudalist dress codes. The reason why the right has been so successful in taking this issue up is because the modern radical left has gone along with (small l) liberal views about this simply being about 'the right to choose'. The burqua is more than being about the 'right to choose', its a political statement about the place of women in society, or should I say, its about women having no place in society, its about women having a place only in private life. I am concerned that many on the radical left are going to far to accommodate reactionary religious ideologies when these ideologies are (literally) smashing the heads of women, mutilating women through forced circumcision, burning the faces of those who dare show their faces in public; hanging women who have relationships outside marriage. Many on the radical left seem to think these are aberrations within Islam. Are they? At the core of ALL monotheistic religions their lies the subjugation of women and the enforcement of heterosexuality. I am puzzled by this association of Islam and Racism. Muslims are not a race. When people make this foolish assertion that anti-Islamic views are racist then you tar everyone who speaks out against the reactionary practises of that religion with the label of racism. I come from a a Filipino Catholic family. Could I similarly accuse all those who attack the Catholic faith as being racist ? One of the great tragedies of middle east politics has been the decline of once powerful secular movements and parties and the rise of Islam as the 'sole proprietor' of 'middle east politics'. Thirty years ago that was not the case. At that time Islam was the bulwark of the right, used by Likud, Regan and Thatcher to destroy secular politics in the region. Has Islam changed its political character ? I dont think so. It remains the same old reactionary faith, no different from the Catholic Church or Protestant fundamentalism.
The western dress code is not something to impose upon other races or religions in the name of emancipation. We western women are also pressured to cover our heads and faces in pursuit of Eternal Youth - the religion you are having when you are not having a religion. Our morning observances before the altar of the mirror amount to a religious ritual - the regular chemical covering of the head, lest we be financially, socially or sexually punished or banished for showing our greys or sinning against the social order with different racial hair colours or types or skin blemishes; the sacrificial burning of fossil fuels to fire millions of straightening irons, the endless hours of work to compile the wardrobe that fills the otherwise empty life and the goadings to save our status in our youth obsessed society through plastic surgery .... we are not well placed to lecture others in their emancipation needs. All the Islamic women I know in Australia today who cover their heads and faces are largely making their own choice based on a mix of social, family, religious and individual factors, some of which are pressures and some of which are voluntary choices - as such they are simply fitting into the spectrum in an imperfect world in much the same way that we do - all women in sexist patriarchies, of both the religiously and commercially inspired varieties, spend their lives navigating their way through a minefield of oppressive perceptions of womanhood. No woman has ever achieved emancipation by being fired upon by another race for not complying with that race's perception of liberation. Some women I know have chosen to cover themselves, after years of being uncovered, because they found strength in linking up with old spiritually or culturally based practices in times of need, in much the same way that a western woman might take to wearing a crucifix or carrying a crystal healing rock, acting on an instinct that such things give them strength. I find that Islamic women who cover themselves will laugh, speak up, voice opinions, follow the news, keep fit and make friends at the same rate that other women do. What is established as a fact is that women who regularly wear high heels get, on average, 30% less exercise in their everyday lives than women who dress comfortably. Women who walk on high heels are exposed to numerous health risks as a result of their oppressive choices - their choices are not truly free but forced upon them by societal standards - perhaps the catwalk is the place for the right wing saviours of women's rights to start their campaigns?
I think the crux of this debate is about whether or not we feel that the government should have the right to dictate what we can and can not wear. I believe that the government should not have this right. I also believe that the burqa CAN be an oppressive garment, but I do not believe that the best way to liberate women from having this item of clothing forced upon them is a legislated ban. I also understand many women choose to wear the burqa for a variety of reasons. And I do not feel that any women should be told she can not wear any type of clothing - I feel uncomfortable with the types of clothing many women choose to get around in at Kings Cross on a Saturday night, I feel that they often feel pressured into conforming to a certain look and that this objectification of self is a form of oppression - but I'd rather ensure these women are empowered to make informed decisions than lobby the government to ban mini-skirts and short shorts. We need to work with Muslim communities to ensure that women feel empowered to make decisions about what they wear, and we should not judge them if they do choose to wear the burqa, even if we feel it to be unusual or oppressive. Supporting a ban of any piece of clothing is just as oppressive as forcing a person to wear a piece of clothing. How one dresses is and should remain a personal decision, not dictated by the state.
I am neither right nor left wing; I am just an Australian making a clear statement. Get one thing correct: Islam is not a race of people, it is made up of many races on this planet and therefore it’s impossible to be racist towards this religious ideology. We all have the right in Australia to free expression, so keep the discussion civil and the needed debate will develop. If you need to brand people as being ‘left’ or ‘right’ do so, however it does sound very black vs. white / us vs. them, so be careful as a lot of people are sounding like the pot calling the kettle black, so to speak. In Australia we are proud of our anti-discrimination laws and I don’t think any Australians have a problem with these. The issue with the full-face veil (burqa, niqab) is that if allowed to continue we will develop a ‘them’ and ‘us’ society that is not part of the Australian way. If people, male or female, are allowed to be 100% covered in public, then people should be allowed to be 100% uncovered in public, simply because of anti-discrimination. However, full nudity is not an acceptable level of dress for people in Australian society, as should full covering not be acceptable. Australia, or the state, has one standard of Law, not two, thus exceptions for one group of people should not be allowed simply because it starts paving the way for double standards in our society, as is happening in many countries overseas and has not helped in resolving community indifferences and lack of cohesion. This is well documented and it should be something that Australians become more knowledgeable about in order to understand the potential future for us all. So far, Australia hasn’t been heavily subjected to this kind of internal conflict and community discord on a large scale and if Australia is to remain the ‘Lucky Country’, we need to continue discussing these issues without being in fear. So let’s get over the issue of fashion, let’s get past the left against the right and let’s get past the so-called ‘fake feminists’ vs. the ‘real feminists’. The burqa and niqab are symbols that many people have yet to understand the meaning of. This issue in reality has very little to do with clothing or the rights of the person within the cover. One last thing, I have no dispute with the concept of a government or state; the system represents not the politicians but all Australians. It is up to all of us to communicate our views, needs, desires and future hopes in a peaceful manner. If the majority of Australians see that the full-face covering in public issue is as unacceptable as full nudity in public, there may be some small minority of Australians that will need to accept the system that we live in (called democracy), in order for us all to work to create a positive community.
I agree that “Liberation is not something that can be imposed, but must be won through a process of self-determination” But dialogue seems helpful here. I grew up in the Christian religious right and could never understand why the women of my church fought women’s rights. So I’ve explored how women come to take part in their own oppression. Too complex to go into here, other than to say that women are born into a patriarchal culture, learn this is how things are, and accept it as it is. Especially if they believe God wants it that way. When they feel their subculture is oppressed, they bind particularly tightly to it, even if their culture oppresses them. But when it comes to “isms” we worry about isms that affect men (racism, ethnocentrism) over isms that affect women (sexism). Women are told to keep their culture, even if it oppresses them. If China had gotten the vote first, Western women pressing for suffrage would have likely been told they weren’t keeping their culture. And did women create the burqa and burqa culture? In cultures with burqas men can easily demand divorce, but not women. An adulterous man is punished by burial up to his waist before being stoned, while a woman must be buried to her breasts – and one who escapes, escapes the stoning. When a woman is raped it is her fault… I think dialogue would be much more effective than laws prohibiting cultural practices. In the dialogue, Western women could learn from the perspectives of Islamic women, and vice-versa. But so often women are warned that they are rejecting their religion or their culture (one that weakens them) and everyone backs down.
I would like to take the opportunity to set some facts straight: 1) Islam is not a race. It is an ideology. Its beliefs should be up for discussion no differently than when we discuss Scientology, abuse scandals in the Catholic Church etc. 2) The "debate" at the Erko Town Hall, where a number of Secular Party members also attended, was nothing of the sort. There was no "against" and "for" and all the set speakers held only one opinion - that racism was the only reason why people were raising the burqa issue. It was stage managed to push a socialist-left agenda, yet you are upset that the APP managed to upstage you. You are both as bad as each other. 3) It is incorrect factually to state that only far-right groups are involved in the anti-burqa side of the debate. The Secular Party is a centrist party, with progressive social policies who believes this should be debated. Many progressive people have problems with the burqa. The socialist left are deluding themselves by trying to marginalise opposition to the burqa. Just look at France. Are the majority of French neo-nazis? 4) It is factually incorrect to state there is no move to Sharia Law in Australia. There is, and it doesn't take much research to discover this. In the UK there are over 80 sharia law courts - and this is a country with a similar legal system and cultural background to Australia. Moves are afoot to do the same thing here. Why it the green-left / socialist-left so blind to the facts in front of them? Why do they delude themselves and play into the wedge politics organised by Islamic extremists. The first groups that will be tortured, imprisoned and murdered under an islamic state are the progressives, gays, lesbians, vegans, artists, atheists, and philosophers. Those who hold a view other than or in opposition to Islam. The left's acquiescience on the burqa is not different to the appeasement of Hitler. Let's have a real debate - while we still can. Frank Gomez NSW President Secular Party of Australia

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