Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Much ado about burqas

One of the problems with much of the discourse about Islam in the Western World is that it is too often dominated by the extremes. Never mind the Islamic extremists - we know all about them - what I'm referring to are those with a racist and Islamophobic agenda.

This doesn't mean that anyone who argues against aspects of Muslim faith or what Muslims do is racist or Islamophobic, by any means. But unfortunately many are; which means that reasoned debate is often drowned out by ignorant ranting. There are undoubtedly some aspects of Islamic culture in the West that need debating and are worthy of criticism; however this needs to be done in a thoughtful and reasoned manner, rather than the "send them all back" mentality or "they are all terrorists" mentality that so often comes to the fore.

A prime example of this is the debate about the burqa and its place in Western societies. With both Belgium and France moving to ban the costume (which covers a woman's entire body and face), this is a hot topic right now. Here in Australia, shadow parliamentary secretary Cory Bernardi raised some hackles recently by suggesting we ban it as well.

Among those opposed to the burqa are a strange collection of people. They include some moderate Muslims, feminists, average Joes, as well as rabid xenophobes. The obvious presence of the latter often means that opposition to the burqa is often dismissed as a manifestation of racism and Islamophobia. Which it sometimes is, but often is certainly not.

Personally, I am opposed to the burqa; I see it as inherently oppressive of women (even if some do choose to wear it), and the total covering of the face implies a kind of exclusion which is anathema to Australian culture. I don't see a problem in identifying certain values as crucial to a nation's identity, and saying that the wearing of a burqa is not compatible with them. That said, banning it would be problematic in practical terms. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and a ban may actually lead to further oppression of those women whose husbands force them to wear it; it may well mean they are unable to leave the home.

Of course, many argue, quite validly, that another key aspect of Australian values is that people can do and wear whatever they want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. Which is fair enough; however I would also argue that the burqa sends a message about the treatment of women which IS actually harmful and unacceptable.

In any case, I don't see my opposition to the burqa as being grounded in racism or Islamophobia, and neither are many of the reasonable arguments against it I have read by Muslim women and feminists. To be against the burqa does not mean being against Islam or Muslims. Muslims are welcome in Australia, but like any other group, it is also reasonable to expect that SOME cultural or religious practices be left behind in order to comply with local laws and social norms.

However, that doesn't mean that the debate about the burqa isn't being stunk up by a bunch of moronic racist types though.

ABC's Media Watch last week highlighted a quite disgraceful segment on Melbourne radio station 3AW. The presenters debated the burqa issue, but one of them, John-Michael Howson, unleashed plenty of vile anti-Muslim prejudice. He then allowed callers to sound off not just about the burqa, but about Muslims in general. An invited guest on the program was Sherene Hassan, Vice-President of the Islamic Council of Victoria (who wears hijab but not a burqa). Yet Howson kept her on hold and refused to allow her to offer her point of view. Hassan would later say "In my 40 years as a Muslim woman, I have never felt so oppressed."

She was given a chance to speak on a later program on the station by host Derryn Hinch. Hinch slammed his colleague and friend Howson for his behaviour - you can read and listen to that here. Earlier, Hinch had also offered his own balanced take on the burqa issue here.

Blogger Jeff Sparrow at Overland offers another observation on how bigotry too easily takes over discourse about the burqa and similar issues. He reflects on the howling from some conservatives about Lebanese-American Rima Fakih being awarded the crown of Miss USA, based on some vague connections Fakih's family has to Hezbollah.

This outbreak of craziness is trivial in itself, except that it illustrates the ongoing pathologisation of Islamophobia... If Muslims cover themselves entirely, they affront Western values. If they assimilate sufficiently to dance in strip clubs, they’re hiding their real agenda. Muslims’ politics can be determined from their relatives, with Islam now a biological rather than religious category; Muslims are clannish conspirators, who behind the scenes secretly control everything, pulling the strings to shape beauty contests and scientific awards alike.

I'm know some of you reading this will disagree with my opposition to the burqa. And that's cool; feel free to argue with me about it. I don't think it's a simple black-and-white issue and I'm open to some persuasion. But my point is that we need to be able to do so in a logical and respectful way, and not simply recycling the same old unthinking hatreds.


  1. I both oppose the burqa and the banning of the thing. A government does not have the right to tell people what they may and may not wear- and, as you said, it could lead to further oppression.

    I'm curious about your opinion on 'Everyone Draw Muhammad Day'. It was also co-opted by Islamophobes and racists, but many participated with legitimate grievance.

  2. Thanks for sharing this one. It is very interesting. Good job!

  3. I don't like the burqa myself, but somehow I think that if we're gonna argue for banning it, we may also have a case for banning bikinis in Bali too since the showing of skin is also seen as oppressive of women (not just in Indonesia, but in the West as well - objectification of women, etc etc), etc etc etc. Or maybe we should allow bikinis but men should be fined when they look at women the wrong way or maybe men should be legally required to wear blindfolds at the beach or stay home.

    (Just sayin' that the whole issue is just kinda messed up.)

  4. @ B: I didn't really keep up to speed with "Everyone Draw Muhammad Day". I'm a bit uncomfortable about it. In one sense, it highlights a legitimate grievance, as you say; in another sense it is deliberately provocative.

    @ fromthetropics:
    I agree that it is a bit rich for us in the West to paint ourselves as champions of women's rights, given the way that the female form is so commodified. The line between female freedom and female exploitation is more complicated than it might seem.

  5. Basically, B's opinion(s) above is (are) pretty close to mine.

    I think telling a woman what she cannot wear is as oppressive as telling her what she must wear. I am opposed to forced wearing of the burqa (or really anything someone is forced to wear), and not being able to make eye contact with someone would make me uneasy at least, but I have no right to tell a woman she must not wear the burqa, and neither, I believe, should the government. Would they force Orthodox Jewish women to give up their shaytls, or the men their yarmulkes? Hell no.

    There must be a way to say "In Australia we believe that people should be able to wear what they choose to wear, (within public decency guidelines, perhaps). We do not support gender or religious based enforced clothing requirements but respect the freedom of individuals to choose to follow such requirements.

  6. Not sure what to say here. I do believe people can wear whatever they want. However, the problem with burqas for me is the inability to actively communicate.

    I mean, I respect their decisions (or their culture norms), but the problem is, my culture norms suggest me these women's clothes say one thing: leave me alone.

    Which is ok, but I don't know how I'd be able to talk/communicate with a person wearing burqa or any other veil that prevents me from seeing her face. Well, it's not really about the face, but the feeling I get these women don't want contact with anybody.

    This feeling might be a wrong one, but it's difficult for me to change it.

    PS-If they, indeed, want to be left alone, then it's ok. But then we get the problem of integrating these women into everyday (western) setting- going to school, shopping, work, etc.

  7. @ Mira:

    What most people seem to want is a society where all people can interact freely and in a friendly manner; not just a society where individuals just do their own thing and don't connect with the world at large.

    I guess this is why things like the burqa, or immigrants who seem unwilling to learn the language of their adopted country even after a long time, rankle with a lot of people. It seems to imply a rejection of mainstream society and those in it.

  8. True, but there will always be individuals who don't want to fit in, who don't want to communicate, who just want to be left alone- for whatever reason.

    The problem is, if it's about "our" teenage kids and their rebellion, or about a local weirdo who doesn't want to socialize, people say: oh, those are individuals who act that way. When it's about immigrants or people from another culture, many see them as a threat.

    I don't really care if a random person wants to be left alone, whether she demonstrates that by wearing a burqa or a more socially acceptable clothes, or by refusing to learn the language.

    But the outcome is the same- I'll take that the person in question doesn't want any contact and doesn't want to communicate. If that, indeed, is true, then ok.

    But many of them WANT to communicate and to fit in, in a way, but without any changing. It doesn't work that way. It's the law of the dominant group, so to speak: you don't have to be like majority, but if you're not, you must prepare not to be accepted by majority (I'm not saying it's a good thing; it's just the way it works).

    So I understand the feelings of minority groups to be both accepted and treated as equals without changing their cultural customs. What I don't really understand is why majority protests so much. What harm can a woman wearing burqa do to you (unless you take that every single one of them is a suicide killer)?

    It's all down to "we don't want Muslims (or another ethnic/religious group) here!"

    PS-As for banning burqas, that won't help women. You heard whet that guy in Italy (it was in Italy, right?) said: if my wife is not allowed to wear burqa when she does out, she won't be permitted to leave the house at all.

  9. @ Mira:

    you speak a lot of truth.

    Re: "It's all down to "we don't want Muslims (or another ethnic/religious group) here!"

    It's interesting though; there are two Muslim countries that I know about that not only ban the burqa, but have also banned the Islamic headscarf, at least to some extent.
    Clearly that is not about being against Muslims. I haven't been to either place and don't know how it all goes down there, but my understanding is that both countries place great emphasis on maintaining a secular society. I guess they have no problem declaring that something is not a part of their culture.

    I think in a multi-ethnic society, we sometimes struggle to define the right kind of middle ground between an oppressive monoculture (as Australia used to be 60 years ago) and a country with no sense of common identity, in which people remain stuck in their tribes.

    The ideas of "nationalism" and "assimilation" are contentious and often have negative implications. But a degree of both are essential for nation-building and I think in Australia the pendulum has swung a little too far away from them.

  10. I know Turkey is doing its best to be secular, but what's the other one?

    I also know there are frequent protests in Turkey made by people (often female people) who want to get headscarfs back in schools and universities.

    Orhan Pamuk is a good read when it comes to these issues.

    Now, about assimilation... it is true that some level of assimilation is needed, in order to build a collective identity among all the citizens... But I am not sure how to handle it, except erasing all the previous identities and building a new, hybrid one, that is not based on ethnicity, religion, race, etc. But this is very dangerous because this system can break and then you'll have a serious mess. This is what happened to Yugoslavia (but I must say, no matter what people say today, it was good while it lasted. The problem is, that sort of things can't last long).

  11. ^ Whoops, I forgot to mention the countries. Tunisia, as far as I know it, has a complete ban on the headscarf. Turkey's ban is not total, but applies to schools and some other places. Although I could be wrong.

    Interesting that the guy from Italy that you mentioned (preventing his wife leaving the house without a burqa) was of Tunisian extraction; he has the freedom to be more hardcore Islamic in Italy than he does in his Muslim home country.

    I must say I don't really agree with either country's banning of the headscarf. I can understand the reasoning though; the governments see it as a slippery slope towards Islamic fundamentalism and then extremism, which most countries in the region have either adopted or struggled against.