It’s another election year and we’re witnessing another round of racist fear-mongering. Along with refugees, Muslims are in the crosshairs once again and the Liberal/National Coalition opposition is trying to grab votes by playing on people's worst instincts.
On May 6, Liberal Senator and parliamentary secretary Cory Bernardi called for a ban on the wearing of the burqa, after a case of armed robbery was committed by someone allegedly using the burqa as a disguise.
In an article on his blog, Bernardi said the garment was “now emerging as the preferred disguise of bandits and n'er do wells”.
Coalition leader Tony Abbott did not explicitly back Bernardi’s call for a ban, but said: “I think a lot of Australians find the wearing of the burqa quite confronting and I wish it was not widely worn”, the Australian reported. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard agreed it was “confronting”.
Bernardi primarily raised security concerns about not being able to see women's faces, playing on the racist stereotype that Muslims are not trustworthy. “In my mind, the burka [sic] has no place in Australian society. I would go as far as to say it is un-Australian,” he said.
This kind of rhetoric is not new — the wearing of any kind of Islamic religious headdress (as opposed to the apparently quite acceptable habit some Christian nuns wear) has been under attack in the West for decades.
These attacks have increased since the “war on terror” began, in an effort to justify imperialist invasion and paint the victims of this war as threats to “our” way of life, with whom “we” should not identify or sympathise.
Bernardi also tried to justify his call by invoking feminism and secularism.
“Equality of women is one of the key values in our secular society and any culture that believes only women should be covered in such a repressive manner is not consistent with the Australian culture and values”, he wrote.
It is laughable to suggest Muslim women who wear burqas are a threat to secularism in Australia. Muslims make up less than 2% of Australia's population, and only a small minority wear burqas.
A much bigger threat to Australian secularism is the high number of conservative Christians in powerful government positions, such as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Abbott and Bernardi himself, who is a devout Catholic.
Bernardi's comments reveal the superficiality and hypocrisy of this fake feminism used so often by conservatives against Muslims.
The burqa is a product of a particular form of historic sexist culture, but the burqa itself is not the source of oppression, and simply banning it will not make women more free.
Shakira Hussein pointed out in a May 11 Newmatilda.com article: "A disproportionate number of women who veil their faces in Australia are converts, and others are the Australian-born daughters of Muslim families in which the mother has never covered.”
In other words, most are not bullied into it by their families as Muslim-bashers suggest, but instead are making a conscious decision to dress that way.
If burqas were banned in Australia today, it is unlikely that many of the women who wear them would feel liberated. Most would feel further alienated in a country that is already hostile towards Muslims. The main beneficiaries of any banning would be white people who don't like seeing burqas worn.
A ban would be yet another example of government control over women's bodies; reversing this has been a central demand of the women's liberation movement. It would undermine campaigns overseas where women are seeking to end government regulation of how they dress.
It also does nothing to address the actual causes of women's oppression. Actions that would lead to real improvements to women’s lives are off the agenda of both major parties — ending wars, stopping climate change, combating sexism, homophobia and racism, improving workers' rights and giving women full control of their own bodies.
This attack on the burqa should be rejected not only as a cynical election ploy, but as a crude deflection of the real causes of women’s oppression in Australia.
If we really want to stop “bandits and n'er do wells”, the best place to look would be Australia's corporate boardrooms, not behind burqas.
[Ash Pemberton is an activist in Resistance, socialist youth organisation in Wollongong.]