Efforts to pass laws banning full veils, burqa or chador, in some European countries — particularly France — have put the issue firmly on the agenda in many other Western countries.
Left and feminist positions are being challenged. The dilemma is whether to defend the right for Muslim women to choose to dress as they like (for whatever reason) or to impose the Western perspective that, due to its oppressive nature, such dress should be suppressed.
In Australia, we have many refugees and migrants who — having fled oppressive religious regimes, or communities where the fundamentalist ethos dominates, such as Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan — are relieved to be free of pressures to adopt misogynous practices, such as women wearing full veils.
Where the burqa is obligatory (even if only required by the female's inner circle) in public, purdah operates in private. Purdah is the system whereby women stay in a part of the house to which entry by men is restricted, except, typically, men who are family members, cousins, children, or well-known and trusted.
Commonly, only one room in the house is effectively designated for welcoming and seating visiting males other than servants, doctors, etc.
In societies where wearing the burqa is common, the advantages are obvious. In communities or suburbs where public places are dominated by men, where it is not safe to walk alone in public — particularly for a young woman — for fear of male harassment or abuse, the burqa brings relief.
Under the burqa nobody can see you; you might be young or old, of no interest or of great interest. You feel protected and, in some societies, actually are safer. Considering the potential and likelihood for street-level harassment, older generations in such communities say it would be “shameful” for a young, single woman to take that risk of being abused or harassed, and negligent of her family members.
Most women who wear burqas know very well when it is safe not to wear it and when they shouldn't take chances. At home with family and close friends, there is no burqa. Often the burqa is simply adopted from the front door to the other side of the community or suburb, beyond which they can again move around openly but relatively anonymously.
The real problem mostly lies in the family, relatives, immediate neighbourhood and the woman’s own community.
In communities where the burqa thrives, the atmosphere is of a seemingly benign, protective condescension (and deniable misogyny) towards women, particularly young women. Females from pre-puberty to middle-age are “free to choose” to wear the burqa or risk being ridiculed and abused in public.
They can anticipate the contempt and they feel the danger of both humiliation and physical abuse in markets, shops, and streets overwhelmingly populated by men. That feeling of being under threat or siege can be so permeating that many women in their own houses feel the need to wear light clothing when showering in a bathroom, even with a locked door and closed or no windows. The fear of “peeping toms” is palpable and real.
In such overwhelmingly segregated societies, an odious sexual tension and sexual repression is spread throughout the community and is worst among young and middle-aged men. Public segregation is entrenched and damages the entire fabric of society, including ethical and moral values, attitudes to violence, stereotyping and rumour mongering.
This context for the burqa doesn't apply in Australia. Here, burqas are so few that such broad community pressure can’t apply. Only a small minority community pressure (including immediate family members), while potentially still severe, is possible.
It is an irony that instead of protecting an individual from the attention of others and providing anonymity, the burqa's presence in Australia draws attention to the wearer and probably sharpens wider community concern about that individual's welfare.
In this context, the burqa can be a form of social protest to express alienation from a Muslim- and Arab-phobic society. The burqa wearer could be a (young?) rebel. This also further confounds the phenomena: one woman's choice or protest becomes the cover for (and collaboration with) another woman's compulsion and oppression.
Western concerns about the burqa include the fact it can hide elements of a woman's life that she may need help with. Western society is not immune to domestic violence.
Many women have stayed home from work, worn long sleeves and/or dark glasses to hide their bruises and injuries. They do this not just to conceal their humiliation and predicament but also to protect men from being suspected and questioned.
If only they had the burqa to conceal their wounds! What better protection for their menfolk. If this seems far-fetched, think again. It is not uncommon to meet men whose jealousy sends them into a rage against the woman who “belongs”. They restrain that rage in public only to let it loose in private.
Some women learn to adapt their behaviour and restrain their interactions with other men to avoid any misinterpretation by a jealous partner. Even in Western countries then, the burqa would offer the opportunity, the free choice to subordinate oneself to a jealous or violent partner (for whatever reason) totally.
A woman can “freely choose”, in effect, to live only for him. The ultimate subjugation — and she won't even have to interact normally with other women.
In the West, as elsewhere, society draws a line across freedom of choice: circumcision permitted, clitorectomy and infibulations not; on many beaches females are permitted to go topless, in the shopping centre not; minor masochist injuries permitted, serious injuries a police matter; wearing a motorbike helmet while riding is required, in the bank it is not permitted.
The concern that a group of people in burqas could include children being trafficked, kidnapped persons, drugged persons, people carrying weapons, illicit or stolen goods, applies in Western countries no less than in Asia and Northern Africa.
There is nothing extraordinary about countries in Europe deciding the burqa and chador are unacceptable in public spaces. The French and the Syrians will make their own decisions about banning or limiting the burqa, and that is their business.
It doesn't seem to be a problem in Australia — more of a novelty. But a threshold could be reached whereupon there is potential for the harmful social consequences to become more manifest and deserving of review.
Every society draws the line somewhere.
The burqa may be an issue launched and loved by racists, but that doesn't constitute grounds for the left to jump to its defence as an automatic response.
Some feminists used to say the oppression of one woman is the oppression of all women. The left needs to adopt a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to support women who for whatever reason wear the burqa.
[The author is of Indian origin and spent more than 12 years travelling, studying and working mostly in Northern India. This article is part of an ongoing debate in Green Left Weekly on the burqa, Islamophobia and women’s rights. See Green Left Weekly editorial Should the burqa be banned?.]