I do not support women being forced to wear the burqa. I see it as one manifestation of the myriad of ways women are oppressed in this patriarchal society.
But I want to make it clear that I do not support a ban on the wearing of a burqa. Banning the wearing of a burqa would simply mean that the person who wears it — voluntarily or otherwise — is criminalised. It would not, as some female supporters of the ban argue, help women extricate themselves from patriarchal control over their lives.
Rather, it would further stigmatise, isolate and remove a tiny number of women in Australia — maybe a few hundred — from taking part in society as women, as workers, as unionists, as feminists, as mothers.
Supporters of human rights cannot evaluate the call to ban the burqa — to give the state the power to criminalise its wearing — out of its social and political context.
The fact is that these calls are coming primarily from the right wing and far right in Europe and here in Australia. In this country, the call to ban the burqa has been made by the ultra-conservative Liberal Party senator Cory Bernardi (who is “committed to supporting Judeo-Christian values”) and Christian extremist NSW MP Fred Nile.
Neither of these politicians are renowned for their progressive views on anything, least of all women’s rights.
This should alert us as to the real intent behind the call to ban the burqa: it’s dog whistling. That is, it is a form of words that claim to mean one thing but has a different, or more specific, meaning for a targeted subgroup.
So while the language of those supporting a ban appears to be about “safety” (for drivers, bank workers) or “national security”, really Bernardi and Nile are appealing to those who are already fearful of Muslims.
Some say this is not a racist measure, because Islam is not a race. But that is a not-too-clever attempt to remove the calls to ban from the context in which they come. Racism is the belief that certain “races” are superior to others. White superiority developed to justify, first, modern slavery and then European colonial rule.
But today, the idea of white racial superiority is so preposterous, so disproved by science and reality, that the racists have to try a different tack. Building on fear about Islam, new theories of the “cultural superiority” of the West are used to prop up racial prejudice.
Nile and Bernardi are tapping into the anti-Muslim racism that has been building up for at least a decade. It has been an essential part of the ideology the two major parties have used to justify Australia’s participation in the wars in the Middle East, and the need for so-called anti-terror laws.
These laws have not protected anyone from any crime. But they have demonised the Muslim community and eroded civil liberties.
It’s true that not everyone who supports a burqa ban is a racist. But I do believe that support for such calls help the racists.
This isn't about women's rights. Nile, Bernardi, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the ultra-nationalist Northern League in Italy are hardly champions of women's rights.
But they all have an interest in distracting increasingly angry people who see their savings and jobs disappear, and their services, pensions and pay cut — all in the name of “progress”. These politicians seek to channel people’s anger against the Muslim minority.
If these politicians were indeed interested in women’s rights, wouldn’t they be pushing for equal pay, reproductive freedom, more services and equal marriage rights?
And if they were really interested in stopping women from having to wear the burqa, wouldn’t they be stopping, instead of supporting, the 10-year-long war in Afghanistan where women’s rights are going from bad to worse?
Wouldn’t they be calling a halt to support for the corrupt Afghan president’s alliances and deal-making with the same fundamentalists who force women to wear burqas in Afghanistan?
Journalist Virginia Haussegger is loose with the truth when she quotes Afghan feminist Malalai Joya [in support of banning the burqa].
Malalai Joya is not a supporter of the burqa, but she has made it very clear that neither does she support the West bringing in a ban. She says the West’s focus on the burqa is misplaced and serves to trivialise the war against the people of Afghanistan, which women bear the brunt of.
Feminists have fought long and hard against the state determining what we should and should not wear. Let's not make an exception for a tiny number of women who already have to live in a society where anti-Muslim prejudice is so rife.
Self-determination is key. The state can and should do a lot more to assist in acceptance of diversity: education, the teaching of different languages, real resources into welfare and employment opportunities with equal pay are the key drivers in this emancipation for women.
Laws already exist to stop those who physically coerce women into wearing burqas. The social, psychological and religious pressures to wear certain things and behave in certain ways do exist. But anyone who thinks that pressure will go away simply by passing a law is naive.
Women’s rights — in secular and religious households and communities — must be struggled for. It’s only through such struggles that people educate themselves and their communities and attitudes begin to change.
If we go down the road of banning the burqa, we can expect that, next week, ignorant law makers will find something else “offensive” they’d like to ban.
Prejudice and discrimination against minorities have devastating consequences.
Those who really support human rights should not support calls to ban the burqa.
[Abridged from a presentation delivered to a packed meeting in Erskineville Town Hall, Sydney, on November 24. The meeting was organised by local residents Amanda Perkins and Pip Hinman to voice community concern at Nile's bill to "ban face coverings" and a Newtown shopkeeper's "Say no to the burqa" mural. Father Dave Smith of the Holy Trinity Church in Dulwich Hill, trade unionist Sally McManus, and Muslim student activist Aisha Chaabou also spoke. Pip Hinman is Socialist Alliance candidate for Marrickville in the March NSW elections.]