I wanna liberate you…like last time

by · July 24, 2010

Pushing their way through the clamour and mush regarding immigration and “the boats” have been murmurs of moves to ban the public wearing of the full Islamic veil in Australia. The issue has been raised on both the Left and the Right, with people taking a lead from Europe. 

France’s lower house has just passed a ban on the niqab and burka in public places, after already banning the wearing of any “ostensible” religious object in public schools in 2004. Laws are on the table in Belgium, and consideration of the same is occurring in the Netherlands.

As with the invasion of Afghanistan, the liberation of women is being used as ideological cover for racism and the public denigration of Islam. What has been disturbing for those on the progressive side of politics is the willingness of some feminists and secularists to see this as a good thing. 

And a particular shock on a personal level: On this matter I stand with Miranda Devine.

The right and the left

Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi issued the most recent high profile call for a ban, labelling the burka “un-Australian”. He argued “they [people of Muslim faith] should come here for a better life based on the freedoms and values that have built our great nation”. I guess in Bernardi’s mind freedom involves the intervention of the state to mandate certain dress codes in public places. Freedom for women therefore involves intervention and regulation by men like him.

Fairfax radio’s Michael Smith alternatively argues that they should be banned for security reasons, because criminals could wear them to prevent being identified. The National Retailers Association has chimed in to agree.

Far from the Right of the debate, Canberra Times journalist Virginia Haussegger wrote in June 2009 of her “sighting” at the Canberra Centre of a woman wearing a niqab:

The sight of this hideously shrouded figure in an Australian shopping mall is confronting and offensive. And it makes me angry, very angry. I wanted to stop and ask why she had such disrespect for herself and our culture. … Wearing the burka – or niqab – in Australia is an aggressive way of saying “I will not integrate into your society, and I care nothing for the cultural mores and social traditions of this country”.

And she goes on to argue effectively the same thing the Right do:

The fact that Western, democratic governments allow this garb to be worn in secular societies is evidence that “gender equality” and the “liberation of women” are still just vague aspirations, mouthed with weak intent. Unless of course you’re French.

Others, including some Muslim women, have argued that a feminist case for banning the burka can be made (see here and here). They argue the burka erases a women’s identity, and that those who do not want it banned on the progressive side of politics are simply cowed by political correctness. 

Yet what seems to elude these commentators from both the Left and Right, all of whom use the moral force of women’s liberation to bolster their arguments, is that such an effort would likely result in exactly the opposite of liberation. 

For that small proportion of Muslim women who may not be choosing to wear religious clothing freely, freedom would be the “right” to never leave the house and an even less diminished “public” life. 

Devine argues it well in her column, leaving aside the final few lines, as does UK author and activist Judith Orr in her letter to The Guardian this week:

If there are women forced to wear the veil by a male family member, how will the state forcing them not to wear it help? Such enforcement can never be progressive. The result will be that, far from being liberated, such women may become completely excluded from public life.

It is not to say this is not a complicated issue, and it is not to argue that Islamic women are liberated/not oppressed. It is to say the debate is so saturated with hypocrisy, and that it is taking place in such a narrow way that there is effectively no progressive and articulate voice allowed.

Not another hijab row

A few years ago I attended a conference in Sydney organised by Christina Ho and Tanja Dreher at UTS titled “Not another hijab row”. This conference sought to provide a space for Muslim women and non-Muslim women to discuss and debate issues that sit at the intersection of gender, race and religion.

The constant narrowing of representation of Muslim women to the issue of religious clothing, or alternatively Sharia law, creates an atmosphere of public scrutiny where Muslim women are objects to be discussed rather than equal citizens with views and opinions on many matters. When Muslim women, and in particular young Muslim women, are asked for their views it is often only on these same narrow matters. And such views are always held in suspicion: indeed, how can you trust someone who is oppressed by Islam to consider their own circumstances independently?

The recent, alternative, high profile representation of Muslim women has been of a group of people just like us. I am sure that the writers and producers of Sex and the City 2 thought they were making a great feminist argument when they depicted Muslim women as just like “Western” women in every way (just simply “kept” by men behind their face veils). And clearly, if the movie is to be believed, liberation and individual expression will come at the hands of designer clothes and self-indulgent self help books.

Perhaps this is the liberation hoped for by Bernardi, and I imagine Devine, but this is equally an insult to Muslim women as they are silenced by consumerism. There appears to me there is no more liberation in Calvin Klein jeans ads than in the banning of the Burka.

Discussion4 Comments

  1. clairea says:

    It's interesting to note that when Reza Shah of Iran banned the hijab in 1936 as part of his attempts to westernise and "modernise" the country, it forced many women (from all over iran – not just the village) to stay in their houses as they were unwilling to appear in public without it. So much for liberation … Many of these women then became ardent supporters of the 1979 revolution, in part because of this but obviously for many more complex reasons as well.

  2. Dr_Tad says:

    "Moreover, freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practise one's religion. […] That is why the US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it."— Barack Obama's Cairo speech, June 2009

  3. Christine Donayre says:

    I have to say with a heavy heart that I attended a conference of, what I thought, to be like minded people/activists. We had a workshop to discuss Fred Nile's recent Members Bill to ban the burqa. It was one of the most offensive workshops I have been to. What was most offensive was the opinion of so called feminists calling for the banning of the burqa for the good of all muslim women. These "feminists" were comfortable & arrogant enough to deem that their knowledge of muslim culture and muslim women's "oppresion" was enough to justify their support for the burqa ban. As the ONLY non-white female in the workshop I felt it my duty to call out these well intentioned white western feminists on their hypocrisy and paternalism. To speak in generalisations about an entire race & then use that as evidence for an opinion about what is right for muslim women is not only offensive but delusional. Western Liberal Feminism is NOT my feminism & it does not speak for me & I'm sure many feminist women-of-colour in Australia.

  4. Simon Bourn says:

    Good point, Christine. In France I have not been aware of any public discussion with Muslim women on the subject. You would think that consultation with Muslim women would have to be a key factor in this whole process, but it has rather been carried out at an entirely ideological level, without, seemingly, due consideration for how this law will change the daily lives of Muslim women. Interesting that American republicanism dictates going to court to preserve the right of women to wear the hijab, but French republicanism has determined that it is "un-French". It is a hugely complex issue, and one that I must admit I can see pros and cons on both sides, but as I am not a Muslim woman I'm not sure how much my opinion counts.