On September 15, France’s Senate passed a bill banning women from wearing full Islamic face veils such as the burqa and niqab.
Similar laws are being considered in other European countries. In the New South Wales Legislative Council, Christian fundamentalist MLC Fred Nile has introduced a private member’s bill seeking to ban wearing the burqa. Neither major party supporta the bill, so it is expected to fail.
However, there is a broader discussion in Australia about the burqa. In August, a judge in Perth ruled that a Muslim woman had to remove her full face veil, known as a niqab, to give evidence in court.
The September 23 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”.
The background to this discussion is a disturbing rise in Islamophobia across the First World.
This can be seen in the United States with the hysterical opposition to building an Islamic centre two blocks from “Ground Zero”, and the much-publicised threat by Florida Pastor Terry Jones to host a Koran-burning day.
Far-right anti-Muslim parties are growing in strength in various European countries. In the September 19 Swedish elections, anti-immigrant party the Swedish Democrats made big gains, winning 20 seats.
In Britain, the fascist English Defence League has taken to the streets against a supposed “Muslim takeover”.
Such extremists are encouraged by the Islamophobia pushed by mainstream politicians and media. Targeting Muslims serves the dual purpose of diverting popular anger at a time of economic crisis and providing ideological support for Western wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, the burqa issue cuts deeper than a simple appeal to racism.
Only a small number of Muslims in Western countries such as Australia actually wear the burqa. Attempts to ban it are a piecemeal attack against the Muslim community that starts with the easiest target.
By targeting the burqa, right-wing politicians and commentators are seeking to attack a minority by also appealing to feminist sentiments.
The burqa is a symbol of the oppression of women in several Islamic countries. Its wearing is legally enforced in Saudi Arabia. Women in Afghanistan can still be killed for not wearing it — despite all the talk of the Western occupying armies bringing “liberation” to Afghani women.
This fact has garnered support from some feminists for its banning.
It is easy to see the Islamophobic hypocrisy of the likes of Nile, who has never been a supporter of women’s rights.
However, in the September 23 Sydney Morning Herald, liberal columnist Elizabeth Farrelly wrote: “It is alarming to find oneself agreeing with Fred Nile, especially on gender issues.
“But feminists should fess up. The burqa belongs in cultures that still have bride-price.”
Forcing women to wear a burqa is wrong. But feminists backing the ban should ask how forcing women to not wear an item of clothing is any better.
The state has no right to determine what a woman wears. Her body is her own and decisions relating to it are hers alone.
Some women in Western countries may be forced or pressured into wearing the burqa by family or religious pressure. But the state has no greater right to dictate what women wear.
Liberation cannot be enforced from above. Imposing penalties on women who wear the burqa would simply strip them of self-determination.
It is likely that banning the burqa would also have the effect of making wearing it an act of defiance. It would turn it into a symbol of resistance to Islamophobia.
Even if women who wear the burqa were to meekly submit to state orders they stop, it would deepen their feelings of persecution and alienation from broader society.
If the point of a ban is to “liberate” women from a garment some wear willingly, it would backfire. Women have the right to determine what they wear without interference from religious institutions, family or the state.
The attempt to ban the burqa, whether it is justified on feminist grounds or not, is part of broader Islamphobic attacks. By establishing the principle that the state can decide what women do or don’t wear, banning the burqa would be a step backwards for the liberation of women.