The burqa: no empowerment without choice

October 15, 2010

I welcome the discussion in Green Left Weekly about the burqa and the question of its banning.

I agree wholeheartedly that banning the burqa is not the answer for women. As in all aspects of oppression, the oppressed are the ones who must liberate themselves, with the support and solidarity of others.

It is not up to the state or religious institutions to impose “liberation” on them.

While the burqa remains worn by women, I support their right to wear it if they choose, for a variety of different reasons.

One of the reasons I oppose the ban on the burqa so strongly is that a ban would lead to the retreat of some women into purely private, not public, life.

I think that while sexism is still such a problem in all societies — including very much our own — anything that hinders women's ability to play an equal role in society is harmful.

Sexism is still rife, albeit in some different and occasionally more subtle ways, in Australian society.

However, I do not think that the burqa is like any other form of clothing. The fact that it is politically loaded with implications for the rights and place of women in society means to me that it is not the same as cloth used for fashion, disguise or other purposes.

As such, I would not ever want to see it celebrated in any way, and I fear that that is where some of the discussion is heading.

While I do not disagree with her article, I have very mixed feelings about Kiraz Janicke's artwork "Burqa Revolution", featured in GLW #856. It shows the image of a burqa-clad woman saying: "If I can't wear a burqa, it's not my revolution.”

I agree totally that a response to the call for the ban on the burqa cannot be seen without the context of the horrible increase in Islamaphobia here and around the world.

But it saddens me that some radical Muslim women will wear the burqa as a political statement against this bigoted and dangerous movement against Muslims.

I think it is very difficult to criticise aspects of a social phenonemon such as Islam when its followers are under incredible pressure and abuse. I think this is true of many areas where those on the left would normally feel quite open to critique something but the circumstances do not create the most positive opportunity to do so.

Usually in these situations, our criticism can take a back seat to the support of wider human rights for that portion of society.

For example, in the context of the horrible situation for much of Australia's Indigenous people, I will campaign for the cessation of the human rights abuses against them as a whole, and not focus solely on aspects of violence against women within some communities or try to pretend that violence against women isn't rife in non-Aboriginal culture as well.

The main issue is solving the incredible racism and disadvantage that Indigenous people as a whole face.

However, I don't think that we should be uncritical of the burqa and its history and role as a tool to oppress women. I believe choice is at the heart of this discussion, but I do not see it as simply about choice alone.

The women's rights movement has always been about choice with empowerment. I think this issue is not as straightforward as most who oppose the ban, or for that matter, support it, are saying.

There are subtleties and grey areas. The only thing black and white for me in this discussion is that the banning of the burqa will not be a step forward in the liberation of women.

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