Australia -- burqa ban debate: If I can't wear a burqa it's not my revolution?

Kiraz Janicke's "Burqa Revolution".

Green Left Weekly -- On September 23, the 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”. Redegalli’s mural has sparked protests by local residents who have condemned it as racist. Sydney Socialist Alliance activist Kiraz Janicke says Redegalli’s piece “has no other value than to promote racism”. She has responded with an artwork of her own — a submission to the Live Red Art Awards, titled “Burqa revolution”.

Below, Janicke argues that banning the burqa (a veil covering the entire body, with a mesh over the eyes), or other forms of Islamic dress worn by some Muslim women that cover the face, will hinder true women’s liberation.

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“Burqa revolution” is a contribution to the current debate about the burqa and the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim extremism, not only in Europe and around the world, but also here in Australia.

In the New South Wales Legislative Council, arch-fundamentalist Christian MLC Fred Nile has introduced a private member’s bill seeking to ban the wearing of the burqa.

This anti-Muslim extremism is a product of a sustained ideological campaign of Islamophobia by the media and mainstream politicians — not only to bolster support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also to scapegoat a sector of the population for the growing social problems stemming from the crisis of capitalism itself.

The debate surrounding the burqa cannot be abstracted from this context.

A recurring theme of this ideological campaign to convince us that Muslims are "alien" to the "Western way of life” is that Islam oppresses women.

Thus we have “feminist” arguments being used to justify the bloody war in Afghanistan, which has killed thousands of innocent women and children, as a mission to "liberate" women, and hypocritical rhetoric about "defending women's rights" from politicians who at the same time are attacking women's rights and services here in Australia.

Racialisation of sexism

Not only would banning the burqa constitute a violation of religious freedom, it is also racist because it holds only one sector of society responsible for sexism: Muslims. This false counter-position of Islam (as an oppressor of women’s rights) vs the enlightened West (as defenders of women’s rights), serves to distract from the inherent sexism of our own society.

The height of hypocrisy is reached by those who, claiming to defend women's rights, have attacked Muslim women. The racist thugs at Cronulla during the 2005 riots, in their effort to “defend women”, chased down a 14-year-old girl and ripped off her hijab.

As US socialist and feminist Sharon Smith argues, “veiled or unveiled, women’s oppression is universal”.

Some progressives and feminists may find “Burqa revolution” confronting because it portrays a woman demanding the right to wear a burqa — something commonly viewed as symbol of women’s subjugation.

However, as a recent 2000-strong rally in western Sydney supporting the right to wear a burqa shows, for many Muslim women wearing a burqa, niqab or hijab is an affirmation of their identity and an act of protest against the prevailing Islamophobia.

My artwork challenges the argument that banning the burqa can contribute to women’s liberation. Liberation is not something that can be imposed, but must be won through a process of self-determination.

If you accept that the state has the right to ban the burqa, then you also accept that it has the right to force women to wear it — it’s the same logic! Either way, allowing the state to regulate what women wear takes away their agency.

There is no contradiction in campaigning against attempts to ban the burqa and supporting those women who are fighting against being forced to wear it overseas. It’s about a woman’s right to choose.

Some women are obliged by social, religious or family pressures to wear a burqa or similar forms of Islamic dress, but state intervention is not the solution. Banning women from wearing symbolic clothing will not change their status or the underlying pressures upon them. Real equality for women requires economic independence and the ability to make a full range of choices about the way they live their lives.

“Burqa revolution” is also a message to the left that it needs to be inclusive. By falling in behind a ban, the left would cut itself off from having a discussion with Muslims who are our allies in the campaigns against racism and war and from winning them to our perspectives through democratic debate.

Anyone who truly supports women's rights needs to reject the fake "feminism" of the right. The best way to fight sexism, like racism, is to encourage women and oppressed minorities to fight to defend their rights through collective action.

Building the movement to stop the wars in the Middle East and to reject the sexist and racist propaganda of the politicians and media is what will in reality create a better world for women, and for all.

Green Left Weekly editorial: Should the burqa be banned?

September 25, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- 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.

The burqa debate: for a more nuanced approach

By Haskell

October 2, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- Efforts to pass laws banning full veils, burqa or chador, in some European countries — particularly France — have put the issue firmly on the agenda in many other Western countries.

Left and feminist positions are being challenged. The dilemma is whether to defend the right for Muslim women to choose to dress as they like (for whatever reason) or to impose the Western perspective that, due to its oppressive nature, such dress should be suppressed.

In Australia, we have many refugees and migrants who — having fled oppressive religious regimes, or communities where the fundamentalist ethos dominates, such as Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan — are relieved to be free of pressures to adopt misogynous practices, such as women wearing full veils.

Where the burqa is obligatory (even if only required by the female's inner circle) in public, purdah operates in private. Purdah is the system whereby women stay in a part of the house to which entry by men is restricted, except, typically, men who are family members, cousins, children, or well-known and trusted.

Commonly, only one room in the house is effectively designated for welcoming and seating visiting males other than servants, doctors, etc.

In societies where wearing the burqa is common, the advantages are obvious. In communities or suburbs where public places are dominated by men, where it is not safe to walk alone in public — particularly for a young woman — for fear of male harassment or abuse, the burqa brings relief.

Under the burqa nobody can see you; you might be young or old, of no interest or of great interest. You feel protected and, in some societies, actually are safer. Considering the potential and likelihood for street-level harassment, older generations in such communities say it would be “shameful” for a young, single woman to take that risk of being abused or harassed, and negligent of her family members.

Most women who wear burqas know very well when it is safe not to wear it and when they shouldn't take chances. At home with family and close friends, there is no burqa. Often the burqa is simply adopted from the front door to the other side of the community or suburb, beyond which they can again move around openly but relatively anonymously.

The real problem mostly lies in the family, relatives, immediate neighbourhood and the woman’s own community.

In communities where the burqa thrives, the atmosphere is of a seemingly benign, protective condescension (and deniable misogyny) towards women, particularly young women. Females from pre-puberty to middle-age are “free to choose” to wear the burqa or risk being ridiculed and abused in public.

They can anticipate the contempt and they feel the danger of both humiliation and physical abuse in markets, shops, and streets overwhelmingly populated by men. That feeling of being under threat or siege can be so permeating that many women in their own houses feel the need to wear light clothing when showering in a bathroom, even with a locked door and closed or no windows. The fear of “peeping toms” is palpable and real.

In such overwhelmingly segregated societies, an odious sexual tension and sexual repression is spread throughout the community and is worst among young and middle-aged men. Public segregation is entrenched and damages the entire fabric of society, including ethical and moral values, attitudes to violence, stereotyping and rumour mongering.

This context for the burqa doesn't apply in Australia. Here, burqas are so few that such broad community pressure can’t apply. Only a small minority community pressure (including immediate family members), while potentially still severe, is possible.

It is an irony that instead of protecting an individual from the attention of others and providing anonymity, the burqa's presence in Australia draws attention to the wearer and probably sharpens wider community concern about that individual's welfare.

In this context, the burqa can be a form of social protest to express alienation from a Muslim- and Arab-phobic society. The burqa wearer could be a (young?) rebel. This also further confounds the phenomena: one woman's choice or protest becomes the cover for (and collaboration with) another woman's compulsion and oppression.

Western concerns about the burqa include the fact it can hide elements of a woman's life that she may need help with. Western society is not immune to domestic violence.

Many women have stayed home from work, worn long sleeves and/or dark glasses to hide their bruises and injuries. They do this not just to conceal their humiliation and predicament but also to protect men from being suspected and questioned.

If only they had the burqa to conceal their wounds! What better protection for their menfolk. If this seems far-fetched, think again. It is not uncommon to meet men whose jealousy sends them into a rage against the woman who “belongs”. They restrain that rage in public only to let it loose in private.

Some women learn to adapt their behaviour and restrain their interactions with other men to avoid any misinterpretation by a jealous partner. Even in Western countries then, the burqa would offer the opportunity, the free choice to subordinate oneself to a jealous or violent partner (for whatever reason) totally.

A woman can “freely choose”, in effect, to live only for him. The ultimate subjugation — and she won't even have to interact normally with other women.

In the West, as elsewhere, society draws a line across freedom of choice: circumcision permitted, clitorectomy and infibulations not; on many beaches females are permitted to go topless, in the shopping centre not; minor masochist injuries permitted, serious injuries a police matter; wearing a motorbike helmet while riding is required, in the bank it is not permitted.

The concern that a group of people in burqas could include children being trafficked, kidnapped persons, drugged persons, people carrying weapons, illicit or stolen goods, applies in Western countries no less than in Asia and Northern Africa.

There is nothing extraordinary about countries in Europe deciding the burqa and chador are unacceptable in public spaces. The French and the Syrians will make their own decisions about banning or limiting the burqa, and that is their business.

It doesn't seem to be a problem in Australia — more of a novelty. But a threshold could be reached whereupon there is potential for the harmful social consequences to become more manifest and deserving of review.

Every society draws the line somewhere.

The burqa may be an issue launched and loved by racists, but that doesn't constitute grounds for the left to jump to its defence as an automatic response.

Some feminists used to say the oppression of one woman is the oppression of all women. The left needs to adopt a more sophisticated, nuanced approach to support women who for whatever reason wear the burqa.

[The author is a Socialist Alliance member of Indian origin and spent more than 12 years travelling, studying and working mostly in northern India.]

The burqa: no empowerment without choice

By Margaret Allum

October 16, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- I welcome the discussion in Green Left Weekly about the burqa and the question of its banning.

I agree wholeheartedly that banning the burqa is not the answer for women. As in all aspects of oppression, the oppressed are the ones who must liberate themselves, with the support and solidarity of others.

It is not up to the state or religious institutions to impose “liberation” on them.

While the burqa remains worn by women, I support their right to wear it if they choose, for a variety of different reasons.

One of the reasons I oppose the ban on the burqa so strongly is that a ban would lead to the retreat of some women into purely private, not public, life.

I think that while sexism is still such a problem in all societies — including very much our own — anything that hinders women's ability to play an equal role in society is harmful.

Sexism is still rife, albeit in some different and occasionally more subtle ways, in Australian society.

However, I do not think that the burqa is like any other form of clothing. The fact that it is politically loaded with implications for the rights and place of women in society means to me that it is not the same as cloth used for fashion, disguise or other purposes.

As such, I would not ever want to see it celebrated in any way, and I fear that that is where some of the discussion is heading.

While I do not disagree with her article, I have very mixed feelings about Kiraz Janicke's artwork "Burqa Revolution", featured in GLW #856 (above). It shows the image of a burqa-clad woman saying: "If I can't wear a burqa, it's not my revolution.”

I agree totally that a response to the call for the ban on the burqa cannot be seen without the context of the horrible increase in Islamaphobia here and around the world.

But it saddens me that some radical Muslim women will wear the burqa as a political statement against this bigoted and dangerous movement against Muslims.

I think it is very difficult to criticise aspects of a social phenonemon such as Islam when its followers are under incredible pressure and abuse. I think this is true of many areas where those on the left would normally feel quite open to critique something but the circumstances do not create the most positive opportunity to do so.

Usually in these situations, our criticism can take a back seat to the support of wider human rights for that portion of society.

For example, in the context of the horrible situation for much of Australia's Indigenous people, I will campaign for the cessation of the human rights abuses against them as a whole, and not focus solely on aspects of violence against women within some communities or try to pretend that violence against women isn't rife in non-Aboriginal culture as well.

The main issue is solving the incredible racism and disadvantage that Indigenous people as a whole face.

However, I don't think that we should be uncritical of the burqa and its history and role as a tool to oppress women. I believe choice is at the heart of this discussion, but I do not see it as simply about choice alone.

The women's rights movement has always been about choice with empowerment. I think this issue is not as straightforward as most who oppose the ban, or for that matter, support it, are saying.

There are subtleties and grey areas. The only thing black and white for me in this discussion is that the banning of the burqa will not be a step forward in the liberation of women.

[More debate: France: Burqa ban a sexist, racist law. These articles first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]