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The Battle of the Burqa

May 13, 2010

I haven’t really wanted to touch this subject (that hesitancy in itself is interesting!) but an article by Elizabeth Farrelly from The Sydney Morning Herald resonated strongly with me. The following quote isn’t the entire article but it’s pretty close . . .

The battle of the burqa is another instance. Generally characterised as a question of personal religious freedoms, the burqa business has Australian politicians of all stripes thoroughly intimidated.

Now, I haven’t read the Koran (or any other Good Book, cover to cover) but most commentators agree, while it adjures modesty of dress for both genders, it is silent on the burqa. And even if you do consider the burqa a religious and moral duty, that’s still just one voice in the conversation.

Similarly, religious freedom is one principle among many, and clearly wouldn’t pertain for religious beliefs that included, say, mass suicide or ritual bestiality (both of which have been genuine religious practices). So the question is, are there other principles that the burqa flouts? And the answer, I believe, is yes.

It’s not, as Senator Cory Bernardi would have it, about burqa banditry. There are plenty of other ways of hiding guns and identities, if you’re up to no good. Nor am I anti-modesty. Indeed, there’s a part of me that entirely sees the point of purdah, especially as modern girlhood confronts us with the ugly consequences of disinhibition.

At my local pool teen females are the set dreaded by and above all others. Storming carelessly into the change room, and without a nanosecond’s thought for the rest of humanity, they stomp the amicable quietude beneath a roar of high-decibel blather about food, boys and handbags – manifestations, you understand, of a single solipsistic appetite – all of it delivered in, like, the latest chewing gum drawl.

Meanwhile, around the edges, the change room’s original inhabitants try, and fail, to put it down to post-exertion endorphins before drawing a single unspoken conclusion. Stinking bad manners. Like veterans of some unspeakable war, we wonder whether this was what feminism fought for.

But losing modesty is a small problem compared with losing face. And – this is weird – although Belgium’s burqa banning is characterised as a victory for the far right, in fact, dammit, it’s a feminist issue.

Democracy pivots on the universal franchise; the presumption for each individual of a public identity, as well as a private one. To cover someone’s face in public, to reduce them to a walking tent, is to declare them lacking such identity, destroying any possibility of their meaningful public existence. It is, literally, to efface them.

To hide the face is to hide the person. As Shada Islam, Europe correspondent for the Pakistan paper Dawn, wrote last week, most European Muslim women have little patience with the burqa or its wearers, seeing it as “a sad process of self-isolation and self-imposed exile”.

And while you could see even exile as a personal right, it does directly contradict a public duty, the duty of public presence. The morality of identity-erasure may be (barely) acceptable, but the ethics are not. Brave little Belgium.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 224 permalink
    May 13, 2010 8:28 pm

    Well done Elizabeth Farrelly.
    The burqa is an affront to the genuine freedom of all women. Why?
    Ask yourself the following:
    1. Is it specifically described or even mentioned in the Koran as being religiously important?
    No, and hence it truly has no “essential” religious significance.
    2. Where is the burqa most stringently enforced or, to put it another way, is there a relationship between the enforcement of the burqa dress code and minimisation of women’s rights?
    Yes, in those countries where illiteracy is endemic and state approved. The same countries where female education is forbidden or severely discouraged. Where women must be accompanied by a male relative to emerge from the house. Where many other basic rights are also state managed exclusively and directed negatively towards women. Where the burqa has become a symbol of male oppression.
    3. Is the “moving tent” burqa a health hazzard to women lacking vitamin D (from sunlight) while simultaneously expected to be particularly fecund in producing many children thus placing great demands on their calcium stores.
    4. Why is women’s attire treated so differently to men’s? What are Muslim men afraid of?
    5. What do Muslim men imagine will occur to their society if their women adopt a different dress code?
    The counter argument often heard is one of religious freedom, personal choice and religious pride. Many of these arguments are fallacious because there is often no choice or freedom.
    I cannot imagine any woman actively seeking a “moving tent” existence and what it represents beyond a reasonable or even modest dress code.
    At this point we often hear from the the Neo-Muslim women on morning TV from Sydney’s south west about how much they love the burqa and what it represents. But it is not “the tent” that they describe or wear but rather a nifty little scarf of flowing fabric and pastel colour coordinated shades.
    Let us not forget the dreaded “uncovered meat” comments by the previous senior Iman who coincidentally was an illegal immigrant to this country and was permitted to stay in Australia against advice, by the Labor government of Paul Keating..

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