Racist Rhetoric of ‘Ban the Burqa’

Australia is undergoing yet another paternalistic and xenophobic discussion about Muslim women’s dress. This time, politicians have been arguing that the burqa (face covering with eyes hidden by mesh) should be banned. The “ban the burqa” furore started with right-wing politicians arguing that Australian-Muslim women are “oppressed” by their choice of religious dress, with little understanding that the number of women who choose to wear a burqa is minuscule in Australia. Even those who wear the niqab (face covering with eyes showing) are also minute (less than 200 at a broad estimate). When this so-called “feminist” agenda didn’t work, the argument was made under false security concerns. The niqab was banned from public galleries at the Australian parliament for one day until the public critique forced the Government to distance itself from this decision. Let’s take a deeper look at the politics of sexism and racism.

“A Woman’s Freedom to Choose”

Prof Sahar Amer has shown that Western obsession with Muslim women’s veiling goes back to colonial fantasies (erotic fetish for The Other) and has turned into anxiety about difference and assimilation (fear of The Other).

Anthropology student, Pina Sadar, has charted the myriad of reasons why Muslim wear the hijab or headscarf and Islamic dress. Aside from religious reasons, “veiling” can be the outcome of other personal motives, including anti-capitalist rejection of women’s objectification. I found similar in my study of young Australian Muslim women in Melbourne. Regardless, this is a personal choice. Sadar writes: “Democratic discussions about veiling are welcome but ultimately the public needs to acknowledge a woman’s freedom to choose not only her own form of a dress but also to shape its meanings – whatever they may be.”

Renae Barker, law lecturer, argues that impinging on Muslim personal liberties of a woman’s right to choose how she dresses is nothing but racist baiting by vocal politicians:

While some supporters of Islamic State may wear the burqa, it does not necessarily follow that the two issues are linked. The attempts by [minister & politicians] Nile, Bernardi and Lambie to draw a link are little more than a dog whistle to the frightened and intolerant.”

As political blogger Greg Jericho writes: what if “the government worried more about women hitting the glass ceiling rather than putting certain women behind glass”?

Team Australia: Racist Rhetoric

On Thursday the Government announced it would ban Muslim women wearing “face covering” from visiting the public galleries at the Australian Parliament. Instead these Australian women would be kept behind glass. After a public outcry (seems the Government overstepped its acceptable level of racism), Prime Minister Tony Abbott had to withdraw support for this ridiculous ruling. What led up to this? It’s all tied into Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s rhetoric of “Team Australia,” a campaign based on exclusionary notions of national belonging which is being used to push his Government’s agenda.

The “Team Australia” phrase is used to convey the draconian idea that all Australians should be more like right-wing Anglo-Australians. It’s a phrase that’s used as a proxy for anyone criticising the Government’s policies on the Budget, security, asylum seekers and more recently on his “ban the burqa” scaremongering. The rhetoric of “Team Australia” obscures real issues (inequitable social welfare; laws that take away freedom of the press). If you disagree with the Government, you must not be part of Team Australia, or to put it another way, you are “UnAustralian” and therefore a threat to the state.

Most Muslim women wear the hijab. By trying to outlaw the burqa, the Government hopes to sneakily inch towards banning all Islamic dress, with the erroneous belief that this will make Muslim-Australians somehow “more” Australian. There are a couple of ironies. First, Australia reveres figures like Ned Kelly who wore a mask. Nun’s traditional dress is not being outlawed – funny that, given Abbott is a staunch Catholic. Children’s costumes aren’t being outlawed. Why is the freedom of dress a right for some Australians and not Others?

Second, the idea of restricting the dress of Australian-Muslims because this somehow reflects a lack of respect for the “Team Australia” spirit is wildly misguided. The biggest Muslim group is Australia-born and research shows that the majority of Muslims overwhelmingly support an Australian way of life, including in my own research.

Really though, it’s smoke and mirrors: by trying to whip up racist fear about Muslims, the Government draws attention away from its unpopular image and our nation’s most pressing political problems.

As lawyer and academic Waleed Aly argues:

“Now is when we find out what Team Australia really means. Now is when we discover if it’s designed to unify a diverse nation or to demonise the socially unpopular.”

This post was first published on Google+.