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September 25, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Ban the Burqa?

At the beginning of this year the New Zealand media turned its attention towards an item of clothing that alternately flummoxed, intimidated and angered sections of the public.

While it became the ‘burqa debate’ the central focus was on one element of the burqa which covers the face – the niqab. Media attention was initially sparked by the refusal of bus drivers in two separate incidents to allow women wearing burqa to board the bus. The bus company claimed that the bus drivers’ actions were not due to a prejudice against a particular type of Islamic dress, but because of a fear of facial coverings known as ‘maskophobia’.

Leaving the bus drivers aside and assuming that the coincidence of two people being diagnosed with the same rare medical condition was genuine, the ensuing public discussion revealed widespread misconceptions of the Islamic faith within New Zealand society.

Some critics argue that the burqa should not be allowed in certain situations while others called for an outright ban in public places. Opponents claim that the burqa symbolises the oppression of women, that it allows wearers to commit crimes with impunity as they remain unidentifiable, and that the garments provide a method for hiding weapons or other devices which pose a risk to public safety. Paul Holmes, in an opinion piece for The Herald entitled ‘No Place Here for Burqa’, claims that “even the most reasonable New Zealander—even the most pro immigration as I am—will tell you they hate the muslim face mask”.

These views mirror the anti-burqa stance taken by several influential politicians overseas. In France, burqas were banned from schools in 2004 and face coverings were prohibited in public places from September last year. Speaking of his objection to the burqa, French President, Nicholas Sarkozy observed, “We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity”.

Jack Straw, who served in the British Cabinet from 2007 to 2010, also became infamous for his views on the burqa when he refused to meet with constituents wearing face coverings. Closer to home, Cory Bernardi, an Australian MP publicly declared burqas to be ‘un-Australian’ garments which represent the repression of women and contribute to a growing trend of ‘burqa bandits’.

You get the feeling reading such comments that these powerful men had not spent a lot of time talking with the women that they perceived to be victims of the burqa. If they had, perhaps we would have heard a more balanced view of the burqa and its place in Islamic society. For example, that rather than always being an oppressive requirement, Muslim scholars generally accept the view that it is a woman’s choice whether she wears a niqab.

There was no public questioning of the attire that Holmes, Sarkozy, Straw and Bernardi select each morning. These men line up in their respective Google image searches wearing that beacon of Western culture—the tie. In my view, the merits for banning ties equal those for banning burqas.

You could claim that Jack Straw’s rivetingly awful striped tie turns him into nothing more than a faceless hanger for his polyester blend. The slightly trapped look in the eyes of businessmen darting down Lambton Quay confirms my suspicion that Paul Holmes cannot liberate himself, or others of his Yes Men generation, from their silk chains. Sure, Sarkozy has the most elegant tie of the bunch, but doesn’t this just illustrate Sarkozy’s repression by his sartorially inclined supermodel wife? While Bernardi looks innocent enough in his baby blue number, you’ve got to wonder whether that high collar is hiding something sinister.

Granted it may be ridiculous comparing ties, which are a quirk of dress, with forms of Islamic clothing which have far greater religious significance and in some cases prevent identification. But it is also ridiculous to contend that the superficial measure of banning the burqa will actually address or remedy the oppression of women. A common theme of imposing a blanket ban on either garment is undermining the freedom of the individual for very little public gain.

Recent events in Egypt and Yemen where muslim women have taken on leadership roles within public protest have caused those in the West to question the stereotypes that they associate with burqas and hijabs. Women, in a diverse range of clothing, are controlling their own liberation. Paul Holmes and other burqa ban advocates are only limiting choice in the name of freedom and should stick to making their own wardrobe choices.


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  1. Julian Marsh says:

    Ties are indeed offensive. As are high heels, and make up I would argue. I vote for nudism.

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