June 27, 2009
The Canberra Times

Ban unAustralian burka

I’ve seen it elsewhere around the world, but I didn’t expect to see it here. Certainly not on a hot summer’s afternoon at the Canberra Centre. But there it was. A ghostly figure walking towards me, clad from head to toe in a heavy black niqab, black gloves and dark shoes. She was trailing along behind her husband and four little children.

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 that she would hide her face and body under all that black cloth, designed to render her shapeless and inhuman. But her husband shot me a glance, and I was silenced. Dumbfounded. I abhor the burka, and the niqab. I hate what it does to women. I am appalled that women are separated from the world in this way. And I am furious that some women will continue to choose to wear it. But then, throughout history, feeble women who are afraid of modernity have always been complicit in their own oppression.

The burka, with its tiny window of mesh over the eyes, and the niqab, with its letter-slit opening, are tools of patriarchy used to subjugate women. This shroud of cloth thrown over women defies freedom. It is a symbol of control. Wearing it signifies an acceptance of segregation of the sexes. The cultures which demand such segregation are societies in which men are considered the natural superiors to women.

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.

In an historic address on Monday the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, called for an outright ban on this hideous instrument of control. “The burka is not a sign of religion,” he said, “it is a sign of enslavement. It is a sign of subservience.” His rally cry has been brewing for years, as the French parliament has watched with alarm the growing number of burkas and niqabs appearing in French cities. The Urban Affairs Minister, Fadela Amara, who is also a passionate advocate for Muslim women’s rights, says the ugly shroud is akin to putting a woman in a “tomb”. She’s called on France to “stop burkas from spreading”. It’s a tough call, given there are around five million Muslims in France. The 2004 ban on wearing hijabs at school, or in public offices, was met with furious protests around the country. A ban on the burka has the potential to ignite riots. Sarkozy knows that. And yet he is still determined to push ahead. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd must do the same.

The burka is not yet common here, but it’s only a matter of time. Australia is positioned in a region being transformed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Radical Islam’s plan for domination is utterly incompatible with women’s equality. Put bluntly, Islamic fundamentalists view Australia, and all Western democracies, as immoral and decadent – because the women are free. 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.

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.

Covering women like this, and rendering them sexless and shapeless, is apparently to stop men looking at them. It is to ensure the sexual urges of men are not stirred or tempted. It is also a fierce display of proving a man’s power over his woman, and his ownership of her. The Koran calls on both men and women to display modesty. Why then don’t men wear burkas? Women too are sexual beings, who may also have their urges stirred and tempted by the sight of a man. But of course that doesn’t register in societies that view females only as sexual objects and temptresses.

By covering herself in a burka, a woman is relinquishing the right to express herself as a female. She is agreeing to suppress her own sexuality.

For a woman to argue she feels more comfortable hidden beneath her burka, away from the gaze of men, is unacceptable in modern society. Such a claim represents total submission to sexual subordination. That sort of thing might have been understandable – perhaps even forgivable – when women were uneducated and utterly dependent on men for food, shelter and protection. But women must no longer agree to such secondary status. And most certainly, not when they are in Australia. There is no place here for the burka. Australians must rally to have the burka banned.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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