When I was recently invited to speak at a debate at Ireland's University College of Cork on banning the burqa, I was a bit hesitant to accept the call to participate. I, for one, am not a woman, nor am I Muslim. Speaking on an issue that focuses specifically on Muslim women seemed to me like an odd and challenging task. Upon reading the invitation a second time, I contemplated my own reservations about the burqa. I have very strong feelings against any government that demands that their women be made to wear full-cover veils. This is absolutely repressive and should be challenged. But I also believe that targeting and penalizing women does not solve any problem. Though I may not support the burqa, I will definitely defend the right of Muslim women to wear one if they so wish.
Banning the burqa is an assault on the most basic human right of women having control over their own bodies and minds. I believe that the burqa is not the problem but a symptom of a larger problem of women feeling oppressed by men and pressured to conform to the objectification of women's bodies in Western societies.
Legislating against and criminalizing the burqa is not, as many critics argue, going to achieve gender parity in Western societies. Rather, banning the burqa is going to bully Muslim women into abandoning their cultural traditions, religious obligations, and political expressions.
I would like to provide an example from my own experience filming a woman from Dallas, Texas, who wears the abaya for her own self-respect. My meeting with Nicole Queen, a self-proclaimed ex-party-girl who converted to Islam, showed me that a Muslim woman might cover up to resist the excessive behavior of Western women who appear to be without shame or modesty. For Nicole, wearing the abaya gave her a new self-confidence. She stated, "It made me feel like a nun [whom] everyone respects because she lives her entire life for God, in the way she dresses -- she isn't showing anything of her body. They can't look at you as a piece of meat."
Many Muslim women who wear the burqa do so out of their own free will. This is an empirical fact. It has been highlighted elsewhere that Muslim women in France wear the burqa for a variety of political reasons, including as a response to the Westernization of society and for freedom from male harassment. By banning the burqa, the majority population is effectively preventing Muslim women from exercising their human right to do what they want with their very own bodies and express themselves how they see fit.
Singling out the burqa directly stigmatizes Muslim women and only Muslim women. Western governments have not proposed legislation that calls for a ban on the orthodox Jewish practice of recently married women having to shave their heads. In the United States there are few if any politicians in Washington, D.C., calling for a ban on evangelical Protestant church leaders telling their women to be submissive to their husbands and act as nothing more than breeding machines.
Singling out the burqa and Muslim women is, quite simply, a somber capitulation to the Islamophobia running rampant in our societies. It is also an unfortunate reminder of Western society's dark history of targeting minority communities on the grounds of their non-Christian faith.
Extremism is at the heart of the debate on whether to ban the burqa. It is nothing short of extreme to declare that women of a particular faith cannot have a choice over what they wear and how they express themselves, especially if it has religious connotations. Ultimately, extremists on both sides of the burqa debate, as the Pakistani-American thinker Harris Zafar notes, have engaged in a virtual tug-of-war, and Muslim women are the rope.
Extremists who call for banning the burqa appear to be largely illiberal, patriotic, and non-Muslim men who use the burqa as a means to persecute Muslims. For these men to be dictating what Muslim women can and cannot wear is a violation of the Western ideal of freedom to develop one's personality and identity as one sees fit. It is sadly ironic that men who propose to ban the burqa as a means to "liberate" Muslim women are the same men who are proposing laws that restrict a woman's right to do what she pleases with her own body and mind.
In banning the burqa and so obviously targeting the women of one particular faith, Westerners are sending a message to the world that their standards of human rights, of freedom of religion and expression, are only applicable to certain types of people. In France, for example, banning the burqa breaks Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, a law designed to protect and respect an individual's private life and legally protect a woman's right to her personality and identity development. According to Articles 9 and 10 of this framework for European human rights, all European women should have the right to freedom of expression and, according to Article 14, should be protected from discrimination based on religious and other discriminatory grounds.
Now, let us take a step back for a moment to account for the absurdity of practically implementing a burqa ban. Say, for example, that a government voted tomorrow and passed a law to ban it. How would authorities go about implementing this policy? Are the police going to arrest every single Muslim woman they see wearing a burqa on the street? What happens if a woman is wearing the burqa of her own free will? Will she be arrested for that? Will she be turned into a criminal because of her own personal convictions and identity expression?
I would like to challenge readers to think about the following issues. Think for a moment about the severity of the problems that our societies face. Go for a walk in any major city and you will notice people begging for some change to put some food in their bellies or to find a safe place for the night to catch some sleep. Think, as well, about the dire conditions in other countries around the world. Think about Syria and the horrendous civil war, and about the water and food shortages in parts of Africa.
Yet people still stress the importance of debating the ban on the burqa, a piece of clothing worn by an extremely small number of Muslim women. The fact that this veil has been portrayed as a major social and moral issue is both shocking and petty. Are there not much bigger things in the world to worry about than a piece of clothing?
Banning the burqa strikes at the very heart of our own identities. It raises the question of the type of society that we want to live in. Banning the burqa is equally offensive as the Taliban's laws demanding that women cover up. We should ask ourselves, "Are we actually like them?"
Follow Craig Considine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CraigCons
The burqa and niqab are often viewed as symbols of extremism. In the wake of the rise of Islamic State, it is unsurprising, therefore, that in recent days a number of Australian politicians have called for their banning.
Reverend Fred Nile has already introduced the Summary Offences Amendment (Full-face Coverings Prohibition) Bill 2014 (NSW) into the New South Wales parliament which, if passed, will ban the wearing of various face coverings in public. The Bill does not refer to Muslims, Islam, the burqa or niqab. Comments by Nile clearly indicate, however, that the law is designed to target Islamic face veils.
While the proposed ban, if passed, would affect only a small number of women, it would force them to make unenviable choice. Obey the law and deny their faith. Obey their faith and risk criminal charges. Stay at home and become isolated from the community.
Government senator Cory Bernardi and Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie have also called for the burqa to be banned. In a tweet Bernardi linked recent raids on suspected terrorists to the burqa, claiming that burqa wearers had been found in several of the houses raided.
Nile made three arguments in support of his legislative ban. First, several European countries have banned face coverings in public or are considering such a ban. Second, criminals and terrorists can use face coverings such as the burqa and niqab to hide their identities. Third, women are forced to wear the Islamic face veil by their families and religion.
This is not the first time Nile has tried to ban face coverings. In 2010 and 2011 he unsuccessfully introduced similar Bills. There are two key differences between then and now: the handing down of the European Court of Human Rights’ decision on the French burqa ban and the rise of Islamic State.
In July this year, the European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s ban on face coverings in public. The court found that the ban impinged upon the freedom of religion of Muslim women. However, it found that the ban was permissible to promote the minimum requirements of life in society or living together (le vivre ensemble). The decision has been heavily criticised.
Blowing the dog whistle
While the court ultimately found that the ban was permissible, it rejected a number of arguments put forward in support of the ban. This includes those relied upon by Nile.
His arguments rests heavily on the assertion that a ban on face veils is necessary to protect public safety. He has explicitly linked this latest push to ban the burqa to the rise of Islamic State.
Criminals and terrorists can and do use face coverings to hide their identities. However, a blanket ban is not the only solution. New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia have all passed laws dealing with face coverings in public.
Police have been given the power to request a person remove their face covering for the purposes of checking their identity. This is a proportionate and sensible approach. Face veils can, in certain circumstances, impede identification and pose a security risk. However, there is no security threat from women wearing the burqa while having coffee at their favourite café.
While some supporters of Islamic State may wear the burqa, it does not necessarily follow that the two issues are linked. The attempts by Nile, Bernardi and Lambie to draw a link are little more than a dog whistle to the frightened and intolerant.
The direct security threat posed the face veil is very low. Only 2.2% of the population is Muslim. An even smaller fraction wear the face veil. Only one instance of the burqa being used as a disguise in the commission of a crime has been recorded in Australia.
Tolerance is a source of strength
While fighters returning from overseas conflicts, including those fighting for Islamic State, do pose a security threat, banning face coverings is little more than a knee-jerk reaction. Such a ban is more likely to inflame tensions within Australia’s Muslim community.
Lambie argued that the burqa should be banned because:
The burkas are obviously designed by men who have an obsessive need to have extreme control and power over women.
However, the European Court of Human Rights rejected the argument that a ban on the burqa was necessary to promote equality between men and women. The court commented that:
… A State Party cannot invoke gender equality in order to ban a practice that is defended by women.
The applicant in that case strongly asserted that wearing the face veil was her choice. That she, along with many other women, chose to wear the face covering as a sign of devotion and even empowerment.
Even if some women are forced to wear the face veil, a ban is not the best solution. Banning the face veil will not result in oppressed women throwing off their veils and revelling in their new-found freedom. Instead, the more likely result is their exclusion from society as their oppressors force them to remain at home.
Rather than encouraging tolerance, pluralism and respect, a ban on the burqa simply removes the face veil from the public. Studies conducted in France and Belgium point to an increase in intolerance, even violence, towards women wearing face veils after the introduction of the ban in those countries.
Instead of following France and Belgium, Australia should continue to seek measures to accommodate a diverse range of religious expressions.
Rather than feeling uncomfortable when seeing a veiled woman, Australians should feel proud. Our society is tolerant and open-minded enough for a diverse range of religious beliefs and practices, which includes wearing the burqa and niqab.