The burqa and niqab are often viewed as symbols of extremism. In the wake of the rise of Islamic State, it is unsurprising, therefore, that in recent days a number of Australian politicians have called for their banning.
Reverend Fred Nile has already introduced the Summary Offences Amendment (Full-face Coverings Prohibition) Bill 2014 (NSW) into the New South Wales parliament which, if passed, will ban the wearing of various face coverings in public. The Bill does not refer to Muslims, Islam, the burqa or niqab. Comments by Nile clearly indicate, however, that the law is designed to target Islamic face veils.
While the proposed ban, if passed, would affect only a small number of women, it would force them to make unenviable choice. Obey the law and deny their faith. Obey their faith and risk criminal charges. Stay at home and become isolated from the community.
Government senator Cory Bernardi and Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie have also called for the burqa to be banned. In a tweet Bernardi linked recent raids on suspected terrorists to the burqa, claiming that burqa wearers had been found in several of the houses raided.
Nile made three arguments in support of his legislative ban. First, several European countries have banned face coverings in public or are considering such a ban. Second, criminals and terrorists can use face coverings such as the burqa and niqab to hide their identities. Third, women are forced to wear the Islamic face veil by their families and religion.
This is not the first time Nile has tried to ban face coverings. In 2010 and 2011 he unsuccessfully introduced similar Bills. There are two key differences between then and now: the handing down of the European Court of Human Rights’ decision on the French burqa ban and the rise of Islamic State.
In July this year, the European Court of Human Rights upheld France’s ban on face coverings in public. The court found that the ban impinged upon the freedom of religion of Muslim women. However, it found that the ban was permissible to promote the minimum requirements of life in society or living together (le vivre ensemble). The decision has been heavily criticised.
Blowing the dog whistle
While the court ultimately found that the ban was permissible, it rejected a number of arguments put forward in support of the ban. This includes those relied upon by Nile.
His arguments rests heavily on the assertion that a ban on face veils is necessary to protect public safety. He has explicitly linked this latest push to ban the burqa to the rise of Islamic State.
Criminals and terrorists can and do use face coverings to hide their identities. However, a blanket ban is not the only solution. New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia have all passed laws dealing with face coverings in public.
Police have been given the power to request a person remove their face covering for the purposes of checking their identity. This is a proportionate and sensible approach. Face veils can, in certain circumstances, impede identification and pose a security risk. However, there is no security threat from women wearing the burqa while having coffee at their favourite café.
While some supporters of Islamic State may wear the burqa, it does not necessarily follow that the two issues are linked. The attempts by Nile, Bernardi and Lambie to draw a link are little more than a dog whistle to the frightened and intolerant.
The direct security threat posed the face veil is very low. Only 2.2% of the population is Muslim. An even smaller fraction wear the face veil. Only one instance of the burqa being used as a disguise in the commission of a crime has been recorded in Australia.
Tolerance is a source of strength
While fighters returning from overseas conflicts, including those fighting for Islamic State, do pose a security threat, banning face coverings is little more than a knee-jerk reaction. Such a ban is more likely to inflame tensions within Australia’s Muslim community.
Lambie argued that the burqa should be banned because:
The burkas are obviously designed by men who have an obsessive need to have extreme control and power over women.
However, the European Court of Human Rights rejected the argument that a ban on the burqa was necessary to promote equality between men and women. The court commented that:
… A State Party cannot invoke gender equality in order to ban a practice that is defended by women.
The applicant in that case strongly asserted that wearing the face veil was her choice. That she, along with many other women, chose to wear the face covering as a sign of devotion and even empowerment.
Even if some women are forced to wear the face veil, a ban is not the best solution. Banning the face veil will not result in oppressed women throwing off their veils and revelling in their new-found freedom. Instead, the more likely result is their exclusion from society as their oppressors force them to remain at home.
Rather than encouraging tolerance, pluralism and respect, a ban on the burqa simply removes the face veil from the public. Studies conducted in France and Belgium point to an increase in intolerance, even violence, towards women wearing face veils after the introduction of the ban in those countries.
Instead of following France and Belgium, Australia should continue to seek measures to accommodate a diverse range of religious expressions.
Rather than feeling uncomfortable when seeing a veiled woman, Australians should feel proud. Our society is tolerant and open-minded enough for a diverse range of religious beliefs and practices, which includes wearing the burqa and niqab.
I was raised as an observant Muslim in a British family. Women, I was taught, determine their own conduct — including their ‘veiling’. We’d cover our hair only if we freely chose to do so. That’s why I’m baffled by the notion that all good Muslim women should cover their hair or face. My entire family are puzzled by it too, as are millions like us. Not until recent years has the idea taken root that Muslim women are obliged by their faith to wear a veil.
It’s a sign, I think, not of assertive Islam, but of what happens when Islamists are tolerated by a western culture that’s absurdly anxious to avoid offence. This strange, unwitting collaboration between liberals and extremists has been going on for years. But at last there are signs that it is ending.
In response to cases brought by two veiled Muslim women from Belgium and France, the European Court of Justice has ruled that employers have the right to stop employees wearing visible religious symbols, including headscarves worn in the name of Islam. This ruling includes not only the burka and the niqab (already entirely banned from the public space by a number of European countries) but also the face-revealing hijab. The ruling goes two ways: if the company does tolerate religious symbols, then no employee can be asked to take them off.
In its ruling, the ECJ has made a secularist stand against Islamists who seek to dominate the public space. A secular public space allows me to practise my faith, as it allows others to observe theirs. As the Quran says (109:1-6): ‘To you your religion and to me, mine.’ Giving an employer the right to restrict the use of headscarves, in Britain or elsewhere, is good for every believer.
I’ve seen what happens when the public space is infringed upon by the religious. My medical career took me to Saudi Arabia, aged 31, where I was mandated by law to wear the hijab, covering all of my hair and neck. And with it the abbayah, a cloak covering my entire body from my neck to my ankles. For those two years, I became intimately acquainted with the cumbersome nature of forced veiling and its impracticality — even seeing it imposed upon my unconscious female patients. Where the veil is mandatory, a kind of oppression is implemented: an oppression that has absolutely no basis in Islam.
There’s nothing from the early Islamic period about what the khimar — or veil — should cover, whether face, body or hair. The Quran, in Sura 24:31, reminds Muslim women simply of the need to ‘draw…[it] over their bosoms’. One of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives is commanded to speak from behind a ‘hijab’ (Arabic for ‘curtain’) as a mark of high distinction (Quran Sura 33:53). But even though Aisha — one of the most eminent of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives and a great scholar of Islam — provided many details about the khimars, no record exists as to exactly how they were worn.
Rigid interpretations of the veil are a recent invention. They’re derived not from the Quran or early Islamic tradition but from a misogyny which claims a false basis in the divine. So when the ECJ supports employers who ban the hijab, it is categorically not impinging on anyone’s religious freedom. The veil has more to do with a set of quite new cultural mores. The Islamists wish to say: we Muslims are different from the West. Increasingly, we don’t look like you, or act like you. For Muslim families who have lived in Europe for generations, this is a strange and ugly trend. The men and women agitating for the right to wear headscarves in Europe would do well to remember our own history in the Muslim world. In the 1920s, with the rise of secular states in Egypt and Iran, Muslim women began to organise in pursuit of their rights. In 1922, these activists, led by Huda Shaarawi, founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, and discarded their veils. Within a decade, countless women followed suit, and slowly, they forced their way into the Egyptian academe. Eventually Iran and Turkey forced women to de-veil as official policy.
But the tide turned with the growth of fundamentalist Islam, and the 1979 Iranian revolution. The revivalist fervour spread quickly from the Shia to the Sunni world as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan started to impose Islamisation programmes. A prominent Shia fundamentalist spokesman, Iranian Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari, said the desire to be unveiled was ‘an epidemic’ and ‘the disease of our era’. The real epidemic, I’d argue, was a sort of totalitarian Islamism that wanted not just to run the government but to police what women chose to wear.
Only now does the West seem to have worked out what has been going on. Rules about dress can, and indeed must, be imposed when any nation’s social cohesion is threatened. Europe is increasingly reaping the harvest of multicultural policies that have served to divide rather than unite. Not just with the growth of Islamism, either, but by engendering hostility to immigration and refugees — often towards my fellow Muslims. The Islamists thrive on this, the idea of Muslims being a society-within-a-society. If they invent religious grounds to persuade them to dress differently, so much the better. It suits their sectarian agenda.
At long last, the European Court of Justice has moved to restore the bedrock of European identity: secular liberal democracy, where the public space is shared by all, and dominated by no one. It’s just a shame it could not have done so sooner, before so much damage was done.