Why arguments to ban the burqa are unsound
- Published: 12 June 2010
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Debates about prohibiting the wearing of the burqa (or niqab) have raged in France, Belgium, Holland – and most recently in Australia. Sara Haghdoosti explains why the arguments used to justify such bans don’t measure up.
Many people, including feminists, still believe that no Muslim woman could ever choose to wear the veil of her own free will. As a Muslim feminist I find this infuriating, condescending and patronising.
I recently wrote an article for News Limited’s The Punch website to this effect, in response to Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s call to ban the niqab in Australia. Bernardi’s comments sparked a national and often ugly debate.
Here are the common arguments that are used to defend a ban on the niqab and why they don’t measure up.
The security issue
Many commentators have pointed out that people aren’t allowed to walk into banks wearing motorcycle helmets, therefore why should women in the niqab be given this privilege?
There’s one important distinction to remember here. This debate isn’t about outlawing the niqab in banks, it’s about outlawing it everywhere. If anyone suggested we ban motorcycle helmets altogether to prevent potential bank robberies they would be laughed out of the room and quite rightly so.
The second most common example evoked by this argument is the incident of a bank being robbed with a bandit in a burqa.
Well, first of all, there have been many incidents of banks being robbed by people dressed up in nun’s outfits but it never occurred to politicians to ban those. Secondly I think that if I was about to rob a bank I wouldn’t exactly be worried about potentially getting arrested for wearing the niqab.
Why don’t they just go somewhere else?
When I wrote my article about why we shouldn’t ban the veil, this was the argument many commenters used to contradict my points: If you don’t like it then go home.
First of all this is my home. I’m a citizen in this country and that entitles me to not only have a political opinion but vote on it and engage in public discussion about it.
There are so many problems in this argument that I don’t even know where to begin and most of them are rooted in what we perceive to be ‘Australian’ (and this applies equally in western European countries) and who we think ‘Australians’ are. This argument assumes that you have to be white to be a real Australian.
If as a migrant you’ve been granted entry to the country then the price of repayment is constant compliance to the status quo.
Anyone that breaks this unspoken rule is seen as ungrateful and deserving of having their rights abused in their ‘home’ countries. Their actual citizenship statement is irrelevant in this line of reasoning.
When I go to the Middle East I have to wear the veil out of respect. Why can’t they respect me when they come here and take it off?
Well, first off, public policy should be set around the mentality of a five-year-old ie ‘I have to do it, so should they.’
The difference between countries like Australia and those of Saudi Arabia and Iran is that we are committed to democracy, separation of church and state and we pride ourselves on respecting diversity and celebrating different cultures.
Just because some governments choose to do the wrong thing doesn’t mean we should too. We shouldn’t set our governance standards at the lowest common denominator. As a country that prides itself on being a world leader in human rights we should at least try to put our money where our mouth is.
It’s bad for women
I’ve heard a lot of feminists support the ban on the niqab because the veil is ‘bad for women’ or ‘a symbol of the patriarchy.’
But if we were to ban everything that was oppressive to women or a symbol of patriarchy we’d have to ban high heels, make-up of any kind, stockings, corsets, bras, wedding rings and so on.
The more important consideration here is what Muslim woman would benefit from a ban on the veil. The answer is none.
If you have freely chosen to wear the veil – as many Muslim women – do, then a ban on it is an affront on your self-determination and your ability to make decisions for yourself.
It is a disgustingly patronising attitude that says by ‘banning the veil’ because your decision clearly wasn’t your own but something you were ‘duped’ into. And it is as far away from being liberating as any experience I can imagine.
If you have been forced to wear the niqab because of your family, then by banning it we are taking away the way Muslim women can engage in society, the way they can get financial independence and thus their way of escaping what is a potentially abusive environment.
It makes me uncomfortable
This is saying I don’t want to deal with it therefore they can’t be around. The other way of making this argument is saying that the niqab is ‘an affront to our values’.
If the value is that women should be liberated from the patriarchy, then the ban on the veil isn’t going to achieve that for Muslim women. Far from it it’ll make things worse.
That sad truth is it isn’t the veil that’s an affront to our values and a danger to our society, it’s the way we are reacting to it that’s betraying our ideals and identity.
It’s important to seek out Muslim women’s voices in these debates. Feminism is about empowering women to make decisions about their own bodies and take control of their lives – it’s time respect Muslim women’s decisions and trusted their autonomy without pressuring them with our own prejudices.
Sara Haghdoosti is a 23-year-old Iranian/Australian feminist. She was a finalist in the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year awards and one of the delegates chosen for the 2020 summit. She has is active in the women’s movement, being a member of the management committees of International Women’s Day and Reclaim the Night. She was the national recruitment director for the Power Shift conference and has appeared on ABC TV’s Q&A.