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Why arguments to ban the burqa are unsound

niqabDebates 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.



0 #8 Tarik 2010-10-29 02:53
Not that a few of these are good points but certain points are bullshit.
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.
High Heels: Completely the women's choice and many options are available.
Make-up: They can be used for style art expression and more importantly making someone feel better because of the female orientated and female run fashion and "style" magazine.
Stockings: Useful to stay warm (sometimes is a much more enjoyable option than pants) and means a woman doesn't have to shave her legs.
Corsets: Again completely the women's choice and many options are available.
Bra: They are actually better for health (unless you have circulation issues) and also can help reduce pain and discomfort in daily movements.
Wedding Rings: How is this a sign of male dominance when the man has to wear one too? This is a materialistic representation of two people commitment to each other and has nothing to do with males being dominant nowadays. If anything its a symbol of Christian dominance... And im a Spiritual Christian!

Thats just one.

And there are many flaws in your argument as many arguments based off opinion and small circumstantial evidence.
0 #7 Shii 2010-08-02 15:46
I think there are several objections to the niqab that people have - things like "security" are really not the main issue.

1 - Perhaps it is a free choice - but is it truly an informed choice? Is it a choice that one makes entirely out of their own free will, after knowing they have many other choices available to them? Are they culturally pressured or shamed into wearing it? Do they truly believe that they could just as freely NOT wear it? Most Westerners don't criticize nuns' habits because they believe that nuns made an informed choice, that they had many other attractive avenues in life open to them but decided on becoming a nun for themselves. On the other hand, many of these same people believe that Muslims daughters and wives are influenced into wearing it out of medieval notions of purity, notions that lie on the same spectrum of slut-shaming that blames a woman for her own rape. I admire a broad range of cultural identities, but I can't support the parts of cultural identities that are patriarchal and anti-human rights. If there were reason to believe that many Muslims women who wear the niqab have barely had a glimpse of mainstream society, or were pressured into it by their husbands or parents, then I would support the ban. It's patronizing, but perhaps we need to see more depictions of financially independent, confident, maybe even feminist Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab for themselves.

2 - It is an extreme symbol of isolating oneself from society, at a time when people criticize Muslims for not assimilating to mainstream society. I don't think anyone cares if women wore, say, a yarmulke or headscarf as a symbol of their religious devotion; those are not religious symbols that often hamper you in your day-to-day life. What people object to is when women completely cover themselves in a way that is so isolating that it makes even eating in public difficult, much less working. I can't think of another religious dress that is so extreme in this sense. When only women are asked to cover themselves this way, people feel like it is unfair, and another way in which men keep women from participating in society. Women could be making this choice entirely of their own volition, but then people think that women are buying into a patriarchal culture.

Ultimately the most honest feminist position is to support the right of women to make their own choices, and therefore I do not support the banning of niqabs. But I do feel like there is an argument to be made that some women who wear it are not making a completely informed choice, that they come from societies theat are more patriarchal and have not had the chance to assimilate (so I actually wonder if it's possible to poll them). I doubt if people are being forced into wearing it, but I wonder if some do not get to fully consider other options. One could argue that no woman who lives in Western society could not feel cultural and media pressure to dress in a certain way, to wear high heels, to wear make-up etc., but high heels do not hamper people from finding jobs and gaining financial independence.
0 #6 Craig 2010-07-10 08:51
I suggest that covering your entire face goes beyond a standard cultural difference. Standard cultural differences might be what sort of sauce you have on your meals or whether it's acceptable for males to have long hair. Covering your entire face seems to me to reduce you to less than a standard person. Face to face communication is far more than words - so much is conveyed through facial expression. So when the face is covered, part of the communication is blocked, leaving you feeling like you are talking to a mask. To me, a face covered in this manner goes beyond what is reasonable and healthy, and crosses a line into extremism. Whether expressions of extremism should be banned is a matter of debate of course - but in line with news stories from countries where these garments are more common, seeing them in my neighbourhood leaves me feeling my own liberty is less secure.
0 #5 Alistair Cornell 2010-06-22 22:21
Why do men not wear a niqab?

Full facial covering may be a part of cultural identity but it's representing a culture that treats men and women very differently, where the burden of modest is placed upon the female.

The responsibility for mens inappropriate behavior towards women due to the males lack of self control is placed squarely at the feet of a woman where she may pay for a mans crime against her, with her life.

This represents an inequality that is an anathema to Australian cultural values where we are still only part of the way to gender equality and balanced consideration.

Is a head scarf offending something that is part of Australian culture? Is it the perception that women are treated with inequality or the simple psychological element of distrust of someone who appears to wants to engage with society anonymously - or a mix of the two?

Do people - male or female have the right to hide themselves from normal human face to face interactions? Yes, that should be true but do they have a right to ask others to trust them in anonymity?

To say that something that masks your humanity to a mere outline, is an expression of who a person is seems counter intuitive. Expressing who you are is about exposure and rich details.

I'd be much happier with this debate about nijab moving the focus to the appalling attitude of men to women and the shocking lack of accountability in cultures that seek to empower women by erasing them from the public eye.
0 #4 sameena 2010-06-15 11:24
this is an interesting article, sara, and i understand your frustration at the inherent racism in some of the arguments put forward for banning the niqab.
however, there is a real issue here. i make a difference between wearing a head scarf and covering the whole head and face, leaving only the eyes to see. wearing a head scarf is, to me, like wearing any other kind of head gear and needs no comment.

my objection is to the full covering. symbols are very powerful things. and the niqab is a symbol. for the 1000's of women who live in places like afghanistan, iraq, parts of pakistan and so on, it is a symbol of repression. It is about men making women invisible and bereft of identity, of owning them. these are women who have acid thrown in their faces and are stoned to death for wanting to be individuals. in western democracies, we have the option, the choice, to wear what we want and how we want. these women don't, and the niqab is a strong symbol of this. for me, it is more important to show solidarity with the plight of these women, instead of holding on to an archaic custom which is a cultural issue, not a religious one.
i feel that being a good muslim is about charity, acceptance, courage and the pursuit of knowledge. taking off your niqab will not make you less of a muslim. but standing up for those who can not do so for themselves will.
0 #3 Damien 2010-06-15 04:39
Some really good points here, apart from the 'bad for women' section.
Some things are just clearly opppressive, but as for high heels, make-up, stockings, corsets, bras, wedding rings, I really don't think so. we all have a choice, thankfully, and I choose not to conform, and it works fine.
0 #2 Michael Cowan 2010-06-14 01:04
Love the article!

I generally don't buy into feminism so much, but this particular topic is something that I feel pretty passionate about.

I believe that being an Australian means that you have the right to be who you want to be, and not be persecuted for it. The banning of the niqab would represent a xenophobic totalitarianism that I for one do not believe is what Australia should be about.

Our nation has been built on the back of men and women from all walks of life. I strongly believe that a society misses out when it allows prejudices or preconceptions to hamper experiences. People with cultures unlike mine are interesting for being different, not scary and certainly not wrong.

The niqab is part of a persons cultural identity, it is a way they express who they are. To outlaw it is just... wrong.
0 #1 Natalie Becquet 2010-06-13 22:12
Great article, Sara.

I know a few Australian converts to Islam who wear the niqab. I wonder where they fit into the 'go home' argument.

Women should be free to choose what clothing they wear, including how much to cover and how much to show. It's a personal choice and by interfering with that, we infringe on their rights as citizens of a democracy.

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