Why calls for a ban on the wearing of the burqa help the racists

Pip Hinman addresses the meeting on November 24, 2010.

By Pip Hinman

[The following presentation was delivered to a packed meeting in inner-city Sydney on November 24, 2010. Pip Hinman was one of two local residents to organise the "town hall" meeting in response to community concern at far-right Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile's bill to "ban face coverings" and a Newtown shop keeper's "Say no to the burqa" mural. The meeting heard from a Muslim student activist, a trade union leader, a Christian preacher, who all opposed the ban call. It also heard from those supporting a ban. A resolution opposing a ban was passed with a two-thirds majority. Click HERE to read more on the meeting and the discussion. See also "Australia -- burqa ban debate: If I can't wear a burqa it's not my revolution?".]

I do not support women being forced to wear the burqa. I see it as one manifestation of the myriad of ways women are oppressed in this patriarchal society.

I accept that some women choose to wear burqas, niqabs, hijabs and other head coverings, and some do not. For the latter, societal, cultural and religious pressures don’t give her a choice. (I should add that the same pressures to wear ridiculous items of clothing, or not wear much at all, apply to all women in this society.)

Having said that, I want to make it clear that I do not support a ban on the wearing of a burqa. Banning the wearing of a burqa would simply mean that the person who wears it – voluntarily or otherwise – is criminalised. It would not, as some female supporters of the ban argue, help women extricate themselves from patriarchal control over their lives.

Rather, it would further stigmatise, isolate and remove a tiny number of women in Australia – maybe a few hundred – from participating in society as women, as workers, as unionists, as feminists, as mothers.

Supporters of human rights cannot evaluate the call to ban the burqa – to give the state the power to criminalise its wearing – out of its social and political context.

The fact is that these calls are coming primarily from the right wing and far right in Europe (France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy) and here in Australia. In this country, the call to ban the burqa has been made by the ultra-conservative Liberal Party senator Cori Bernadi (who is “committed to supporting Judeo-Christian values”) and the ultra-conservative Fred Nile in NSW.

Neither of these politicians is renowned for their progressive views on anything, not least women’s rights.

Dog whistle politics

This should alert us as to the real intent behind the call to ban the burqa: it’s dog whistling. That is, it is a form of words that purport to mean one thing but has a different, or more specific, meaning for a targeted subgroup.

So while the language of those supporting a ban purports to be about “safety” (for drivers, bank workers) or “national security”, really Bernardi and Nile are appealing to those who are already fearful of Muslims.

Some argue that this is not a racist measure, because Islam is not a race. But that is a not-too-clever attempt to remove the calls to ban from the context in which they come. Racism is the belief that certain “races” are superior to others. White superiority developed to justify, first, modern slavery and then European colonial rule.

But today, the idea of white racial superiority is so preposterous, so disproved by science and reality, that the racists have to try a different tack. Building on fear, or concern about, Islam is the next best option. New theories of “cultural superiority” of the West are used to prop up racial prejudice that exists, but is under challenge.

War drive

Nile and Bernardi are tapping into the anti-Muslim racism that has been building up for a least a decade. It’s been an essential part of the ideology the two major parties have used to justify Australia’s participation in the wars in the Middle East, and the need for so-called “anti-terror” laws.

These laws have not protected anyone from any crime. But they have demonised the Muslim community, denied the accused their right to silence and legal representation, and even to stay in contact with their families.

It’s true that not everyone who supports a burqa ban is a racist. But I do believe that support for such calls does help the racists.

Women's rights?

Isn't this about women's rights?


Fred Nile, Cori Bernardi, French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the ultra-nationalist Northern League in Italy are hardly champions of women's rights.

But they all have an interest in distracting increasingly angry people who see their savings and jobs disappear, and their services, pensions and pay cut – all in the name of “progress”. These politicians seek to channel people’s anger against the Muslim minority.

If these politicians were indeed interested in women’s rights, wouldn’t they be pushing for equal pay, reproductive freedom, more services and equal marriage rights?

And if they were really interested in stopping women from having to wear the burqa wouldn’t they be stopping, instead of supporting, the 10-year-long war Afghanistan where women’s rights are going from bad to worse?

Wouldn’t they be calling a halt to support for the corrupt Afghan president’s deal-making with the same fundamentalists who force women to wear burqas in Afghanistan?

But what about those so-called feminists who support the burqa ban?

Journalist Virginia Haussegger is wrong. She is either wittingly or unwittingly assisting the far right in its Islamophobic campaign. And she is loose with the truth when she quotes Afghan feminist Malalai Joya in her defence.

Malalai Joya is not a supporter of the burqa, but she has made it very clear that neither does she support the West bringing in a ban. She says the West’s focus on the burqa is misplaced and serves to trivialise the war against the people of Afghanistan in which women bear the brunt of that disaster.

So, what next?

Feminists have fought long and hard against the state determining what we should, and what we should not wear. Let's not make an exception for a tiny number of women who already have to live in a society where anti-Muslim prejudice is so rife.

Self-determination is key. The state can and should do a lot more to assist in acceptance of diversity: education, the teaching of different languages, real resources into welfare and employment opportunities with equal pay are the key drivers in this emancipation for women.

Laws already exist to stop those physically coercing women into wearing burqas. The social, psychological and religious pressures to wear certain things and behave in certain ways certainly exists. But anyone who thinks that simply by passing a law that pressure will go is naive.

Women’s rights – in secular and religious households, and communities – has to be struggled for. It’s only through such struggles, that people educate themselves and their communities, and it’s only then that attitudes begin to change.

If we go down the road of banning the burqa, we can expect that next week ignorant law makers will find some thing else “offensive” they’d like to ban. Equal marriage rights? The building of a mosque in a certain neighbourhood?

Prejudice and discrimination against minorities – which is what the call to ban the burqa is about – has devastating consequences.

Those who really support human rights should not support calls to ban the burqa.

[Pip Hinman is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]