17 July, 2009

Banning the Burka*: An ‘UnAustralian’ Idea

When prominent Canberra journalist and newsreader, Virginia Haussegger used her Canberra Times column to call on the Australian Government to ban the burka, she unleashed yet another divisive debate about traditional Islamic dress which had the potential to further marginalise Muslim women.

While I know Virginia is not a not a racist, nor a Right Wing reactionary, her approach has allowed her arguments to be latched onto by those who are, and dismissed as xenophobic by her detractors. She called the burka ‘un-Australian' and framed her arguments through inflammatory language which unfortunately sounded like she’d lifted it straight from the Howard playbook for ‘dog-whistling’ - although that may not have been her intention.

A feminist case for the banning of the burka and the niqab (typically a black face cover which conceals all but the eyes) can certainly be made but Virginia's strategy of conflating a privileged, Western reading of feminism with nationalism was an ideologically flawed approach and rendered her arguments weak.

The problems with her case were most potently demonstrated during a packed public debate at the Australian National University (ANU) this week where feminist Muslim scholar and writer, Dr Shakira Hussein, joined me in challenging Virginia's views on this very difficult issue. The debate was made more interesting by the relationship between the three of us: we’re firm friends who respect each others’ professionalism and enjoy arguing about ideas.

During the debate, attended by nearly 400 people, Virginia reiterated her view that the burka & niqab need to be banned on feminist and cultural grounds because they’re ‘un-Australian’ instruments of oppression imposed by men on compliant women, while indicating support for the headscarf known as the hijab. I objected to her argument on the basis of the assault that such a call represents to freedom of expression and choice for women; the Orientalist, culturally imperialistic underpinnings of the call; and the implications of a prominent journalist making such a call with regard to the consequences for Muslim women generally.

Pic. Courtesy Canberra Times

Meanwhile, Shakira (whose PhD research took her to Pakistan to investigate encounters between Muslim & non-Muslim women) argued that you can’t impose liberation on women, and pointed to the disproportionate nature of the call given the minute number of Muslim women in Australia who wear the burka or niqab, and the fact that most who do wear it make an independent choice to do so. She also counted the cost for Muslim women of being forced into a defensive position on the issue by such calls.

But it was an audience member who laid the fatal intellectual blow. Young Muslim woman Durkhanai Ayubi travelled from Melbourne to attend the debate and she was first to ask a question from the crowd after it concluded. Addressing Virginia Haussegger directly, she asked: “Do you see the irony in claiming to uphold a woman’s freedom by denying her the option to wear the burka? I think calling for a ban on the burka in a democratic country is what’s ‘un-Australian’”

While many Muslim women had hoped unsettling community debates about traditional Islamic dress had run their course in Australia, the storm that erupted in the aftermath of this burka-ban call (which was triggered by Right-Wing French President Nicolas Sarkozy's call for a similar ban in France) indicated an ongoing appetite for public discussion on the issue and media coverage of it.

Pic. Courtesy Canberra Times

On ABC radio talkback and online, opinion ran at around 80% against the ban with many forceful and persuasive arguments being put via comments at Virginia's own blog. A Twitter poll (which accompanied the debate) produced similar results as did a fiery debate at the youth-oriented website Riotact. However, letters to the Canberra Times were roughly evenly divided between support for, and opposition to, the ban and the ANU audience (which was heavily female) appeared to reflect this split. Significantly, a Canberra Times journalist told me that almost all of the "loony" responses deemed unfit for publication were in support of the ban and many of those were perceived as racist.

In a post-September 11 environment where crime, terrorism, the Middle East & Islam have been frequently conflated, racists, xenophobes and Islamophobes have felt licensed to openly vilify members of Australia’s Muslim communities (as has occurred internationally). At times, this feeling has overflowed into hate crimes, largely targeting Muslim women, and it fuelled the tensions that led to the 2005 Cronulla Riots. This is one reason why extreme care needs to be taken in debating these issues and it further problematises Virginia's call for a ban on items of clothing associated with fundamentalist Islam.

You can listen to a podcast of the debate here. And it will be broadcast by ABC’s Fora program and by Sky News’ APAC channel at times yet to be scheduled.

Meantime, here’s an outline of my contribution to the debate which was moderated by international human rights law expert, the ANU's Professor Hilary Charlesworth.

* There are several accepted spellings for burka including burqua, burqa and burkha. For this post, I have adopted the spelling chosen by the Canberra Times & ANU to promote the debate.

Ban the Burka?

Julie Posetti - ANU/Canberra Times debate 15/7/09

I want to begin by publicly acknowledging my deep respect for Virginia Haussegger as a woman, a journalist and a feminist. I wholeheartedly support her democratic right to express forceful opinions and to do so without being abused by those who violently disagree.

BUT I’m afraid I can’t agree with Virginia on this issue – as a feminist, as a journalist, nor as a researcher of media coverage of Muslim women and its effects.

My objections to her call to ban the burka in Australia are essentially threefold:

1) While the principle of free speech which Australians hold dear supports Virginia’s right to make such a call, it would be undermined by a ban that so limits a woman’s self-expression and freedom of choice.

2) It smacks of Orientalism, cultural imperialism/Colonialism and, ironically, paternalism. Unfortunately, the language in which she’s couched her call also resonates with xenophobes & racists.

3) Activist journalism is a valid form of human rights advocacy but it must be cautiously practiced in the context of awareness of impacts on the subjects of such reportage. This is particularly important when the journalists involved are outsiders and the issue is highly sensitive - as it is in this case.

Freedom of Speech:

I am not a fan of the burka, nor what it symbolises in fundamentalist Islamic states. To misquote Steve Biko – the South African anti-apartheid hero who wrote while he was banned “I write what I like” – I wear what I like. And I believe the state has no place in a woman’s wardrobe – not as an enforcer of dress codes nor a prohibitor of them.

I’m about to bring a baby girl into the world & as much as I’d be disappointed if she chose to shroud her body in a burka, and I’d seek to persuade her from doing so in the Australian context, I’m pleased she’ll be born into a country where she could choose to do so and I’d defend her right to make such a choice.

I agree with Malalai Joya – the feminist Afghani politician & women’s activist whose bravely expressed views have exposed her to assassination attempts – who was quoted by Virginia today in defence of her case. Joya says “I hate that burka”. But she wears it by choice in Afghanistan for security reasons and she also says “…if, some women, they like it because of religious cause or as a part of culture, I respect them. This is a personal issue."

I also prefer Barack Obama to French President Nicolas Sarkozy whose own recent call for a Burka inspired Virginia’s. As Obama said in his landmark Cairo address: “It is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practising religion as they see fit, for instance, by dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear".

In addition to being an affront to Australian notions of freedom of expression and choice, and presenting a legal logistical nightmare in terms of legislating for and enforcing such a ban, in Australia banning the burka may also be unconstitutional, contravening section 116 of the Constitution which states:

"The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion..."

Prof. Hilary Charlesworth will no doubt be better able to interpret the Constitution as it would apply to such a ban, but the evidence suggests that in Australia, the very small number of women who wear a burka, choose to do so independently as a matter of conscience reflective of religious values. To dismiss them as Virginia does as being “feeble women who are afraid of modernity... complicit in their own oppression” is patronising, elitist and has the effect of denying them a voice – the same right she believes the burka suppresses.

Cultural policing

While Virginia argues it’s about freedom, banning the burka would be an oppressive act designed to enforce Western perceptions of liberation reflective of cultural imperialism. The irony is that far from defending women’s rights and freedoms, it would effectively deny them, requiring reliance on masculinist, patriarchal systems of governance & law enforcement.

According to Virginia’s feminist perspective, the Burka is a dehumanising icon of gender oppression, keeping women compliant, silent & submissive.

But Said’s theory of Orientalism posits that Western media typically impose their own intellectual and cultural superiority through reportage of Islamic people, politics & issues, reflecting perspectives that regard the Muslim world and its inhabitants as backward, barbaric and outsiders to Western society.

Said’s theory can be seen to be at play in Virginia's call for a burka-ban.

In her Canberra Times piece titled “Ban Un-Australian Burka", she wrote: “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'. Instead, the woman wearing it is demonstrating that she would rather submit to gender apartheid, than embrace the social norms of this place. The burka is an arrogant display of disrespect to Australia and the Australian way of life.”

While I know she is not a racist, nor a Right Wing reactionary, Virginia’s choice of highly emotive & inflammatory language which borrows from the Howard playbook has allowed her arguments to be dismissed as such by her detractors and latched onto by xenophobes.

While in the staunchly secular French Republic there have been as many calls from the Left for such a ban as from the Right (which is the spectrum from which Sarkozy’s pitch comes); in multicultural Australia, where the spirit of egalitarianism has encouraged religious and cultural pluralism, until now calls for such a ban have been the exclusive territory of Right-Wing commentators, racists and politicians like Rev Fred Nile, who called for a burka ban in 2002, saying it could be used to disguise bombs.

When his critics pointed out that the same effect could be achieved with an overcoat & scarf or a ski mask, ABC radio’s PM reported that Rev Nile dismissed this suggestion on the basis that in summer an overcoat would appear suspicious: “Which makes you wonder how Santa will go in his big red suit and beard, posing for photographs with his fans this Christmas”. (ABC Radio PM 21/11/02)

Federal Liberal politicians Bronwen Bishop & Sophie Panopoulos similarly called for a ban on veiling in public places in 2005 with Bishop comparing claims from Muslim women that some choose to cover as an expression of free choice, to distorted perceptions of freedom reminiscent of Nazi Germany. Bishop went on to imply that women who wear the hijab are unpatriotic non-conformists ‘… it is being used by the sort of people who want to overturn our values as an iconic emblem of defiance and a point of difference’

This language was echoed by Virginia who also wrote: “Australia must not allow that radical and overt tool of fundamentalism, the burka, to be worn here. It defies our cherished values of equality and freedom.” I find this to be a deeply ironic & incongruous argument – how do you enforce equality by denying a woman freedom of choice and freedom of expression?

Responding to Fred Nile’s Burka ban call, then NSW Premier Bob Carr warned: “Stereotypes are the first step in actual full-blooded racism.”(ABC TWT 22/11/02)

Virginia’s views – and particularly the manner in which they’ve been expressed via a conflation of nationalism & feminism - are both a difficult pill to swallow &, more seriously, potentially a recipe for the inflammation of xenophobia within the community.

The perpetuation of stereotypes such as the suggestion all women who wear the burka are concurrently oppressed & threatening, in combination with fear of difference, have exposed Muslim women to racist attacks in Australia. In the aftermath of Sept 11, and the Bali & London bombings, they were spat on, their veils were ripped off…they were verbally assaulted. Debates like this can make Muslim women feel at risk, rather than liberated. And they can actually put them at risk when they overflow into violence: in Germany earlier this month, a veiled Muslim woman was stabbed to death in the courtroom she was applying to for justice by the man she accused of racially vilifying her.

The effect of burka-ban in Australia would be to further marginalise an extreme minority – and for those few who may be forced to wear the burka by violent male oppressors, it will further isolate them. I’d rather see a woman at risk emerge from her home in a burka than feel, or be, compelled to stay indoors – out of sight and out of mind - because her government banned her from wearing one.

Finally, such burka-ban calls inevitably take the focus off more significant underlying issues such as violence against women - which is far from a Muslim-exclusive problem in this country – by effectively covering it up with the distracting issue of clothing.

Media Coverage

This call for a burka-ban came from a credible, respected journalist, so the effect of media coverage of such issues on Muslim women is particularly relevant.

In our age, Muslim women are both highly visible members of one of the most marginalised groups in Western society and the most vulnerable to vilification and media stereotyping.

Based on my research in this area over the past few years – which has involved both studying coverage & speaking to Muslim women about their experiences & perceptions of it - I’ve concluded that they are concurrently pigeon-holed as terrorist threats, victims of male oppression and sexualised, exotic ‘others’, who struggle to be heard beyond the veil as the news media overwhelmingly perpetuates ignorant, shallow misrepresentations of them. In the portrayal of Muslim women, attention is frequently focused on the way they dress with their clothing seen as a sort of shorthand symbol of their threatening, alien status

As MacDonald notes:

The image of the veil continues to exercise discursive power over perceptions of Islam and Muslim women. Expressions of surprise, even in the twenty-first century, that veiled Muslim women can appear as Olympic athletes, “suicide bombers,” feminists, politicians, musicians, or even comedians, underline the tenacity of beliefs that Islamic veiling is intrinsically incompatible with women’s agency in the construction of their identities. (MacDonald 2006: 19)

Muslim women are virtually invisible in mainstream news. And when they are reported they are almost exclusively cast as the outsider – alien to Australian culture and social experience with an almost inescapable requirement to speak, when they are asked, about veiling. Aly and Walker link the Australian media obsession with veiling to the discourses of national security and social cohesion: ‘Indeed, the veil has come to represent Islam itself and the “veiled threat” has become code for the wider threat of an Islamic presence in Australia drawing explicitly on fears that Australian cultural values might collapse’.

Most recently I interviewed & surveyed 18 Muslim women from diverse cultural & professional backgrounds (including a number of journalists) about their experiences of the media's reporting of Muslim women.

Seventeen out of the 18 participants in this research were scathing in their criticism of the mainstream news media’s reporting of Muslim women. They cited rampant stereotyping as the biggest problem, highlighting the clich├ęd representations of women as veiled; victims of misogyny and an oppressive religion; subject to polygamous marriages; uneducated; alien; sub-human; unassertive; foreign; fundamentalist; ‘un-Australian’; distant and unapproachable as significant cause for concern. The journalists among the participants also complained about rampant stereotyping and many respondents lamented the media’s conflation of culture and religion and the ‘reductionist’ approach to coverage, describing it variously as ‘racist’; ‘rubbish’; ‘opportunistic’; ‘negative’; ‘wilfully uninformed’; ‘stupid’ and ‘docile’. Another issue highlighted was the secondary effect of such coverage, described as a silencing impact, which caused Muslim women to feel bound to defend misogynistic men against negative reportage.

One respondent summed up the general feeling of participants:

“They (the media) have invented a stereotype of blind, obedient colourless women, covered from head to toe in grey, which has nothing to do with real life. They never represent the diversity of Muslim women – our origins, professions, education, opinions, or clothes. Our voices are never heard themselves, just people speaking on our behalf, often typifying us as victims of brutal men. If we don’t fit the stereotype (and nearly no-one does) then our views are dismissed as being atypical. The image it [the media] presents of Muslim women is just nothing like me or any of the Muslim women I know. It is a fantasy of Western ignorance, which is reinforced every time it is in the press.”

So, while I’m not opposed to activist journalism as a human rights weapon – which is how I believe Virginia intends her work in this area to be perceived – the impact of such media coverage on Muslim women must be considered – both in terms of the way it has the potential to fan xenophobia and, more subtly, through the impact on their identities and sense of belonging in the Australian community.

And this is not just true of Australian women: The act of Muslim women unveiling and conforming to Western models of post-feminist beauty was also manipulated by the media as a potent, Colonial symbol of ‘liberation’ and ‘rescue’ in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghan women have complained of Western media fixations on the burka, which were deployed to justify the invasion of Afghanistan & which had the effect in the aftermath of the war of overshadowing much more serious underlying issues.

Shahira Fahmy’s content analysis of the Associated Press photo archive covering the periods immediately before and after the ‘liberation’ of Kabul found that while only 1% of AP photographs showed women with hair and faces exposed, the Western media excessively focused on the rate of unveiling (through the pictures actually published) to the detriment of reportage on underlying problems surrounding women’s employment, education and abuse. (Fahmy 2004)

Myra MacDonald further argues that the Western media used women’s 'bowed and veiled' bodies to confirm the urgency of rescuing them from their fate - without historical enquiry into the reasons for women’s poverty and misery, or the role of Western powers in enabling these conditions to prevail (2006)

Finally, the media tends to speak on behalf of or at Muslim women, instead of with them and Virginia’s call for a ban in the absence of any interactions with burka-clad women in Australia, beyond one sighting in a shopping mall, falls into this trap.

The way forward in this debate is to build opportunities for dialogue between progressive feminist Muslims and non-Muslims, and those who veil with the burka and niqab. We need to pave the way for self-empowerment and engagement, not blow up such routes through divisive and counter-productive calls for bans on burkas and niqabs which, to many Muslim women, feel just as oppressive as the shrouds themselves.

Note: for an example of effective and ethical media coverage of this issue see this report on ABC’s Stateline in response to the initial public reaction to Virginia Haussegger’s column. See also Virginia's recent 730 Report story on her travels in Afghanistan


Durkhanai said...

hey Julie, great summary of the debate!

I think you did a fantastic job of getting your point across on the day.

Lets see how far this debate goes.

TUC said...

Thanks for sharing this. It was a very interesting (and convincing) read.

Maryanne said...


I was glad to read your comments here as I agreed with your position on Ms Haussegger's ideology and her stance as what you correctly called a 'privileged, western' (feminist). I also had certain thoughts along the lines of neo-colonialism and according to which western values subsume those of another culture.

Haper Collins Australia are currently looking at my novel, Walking to Karachi, which is set in Pakistan in the 50's-1980's.

In the book there is an Australian character, coincidentally named 'Virginia' (by the Senior Editor working with me a month ago on the manuscript), who reacts as I did the first time I went to Pakistan -- with annoyance and typical feminist distaste at being asked to wear a shalva qamiz in forty-degree heat and to cover my hair in public, and not to gaze into the faces of people (tough for me as as a writer and a painter.) I bristled momentarily until I realised that I was applying my 'privileged, western' values in a scenario in which they do NOT apply.

I found Edward Saiid's book 'Orientalism' to be something many more people in the West should be encouraged to read, it coloured my thinking when I was doing an MA in Cultural Heritage at UC and thereafter. It informs my novel in that my 'Virginia' admits that her thinking is irrelevant to Pakistan at that time.

Let's hope Harper Collins see fit to publish Walking to Karachi, and perhaps my newly-renamed character 'Victoria' will teach readers something. In fact the entire book has something to tell Australian readers about Pakisan.

Maryanne Khan

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[ *The opinions expressed by j-scribe reflect those of the author only and in no way represent the views of the University of Canberra ]