Headgear debate or Islamophobia?
The veil, whether it is in the form of a hijab or the more controversial burqa, continues to be highly contested and debated. Initial concerns on whether it is a violation of choice, or free will and freedom of expression, have now predictably been conflated with national security here in Australia.
The full-length garment burqa, which covers the entire body and face, has been banned in several European countries including Austria, France, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as African nations Chad and Congo-Brazzaville.
The controversial senator of the One Nation political party, Paula Hanson has called the burqa an “evil tool of oppression” and “an extreme national security risk”. She claims the burqa is a political symbol, not a religious one and clearly sees the need for a political solution led by a dominant white majority, not by the Muslim community.
Feminist author Phyllis Chesler suspect, will agree with Hanson on this issue. She wrote: “Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf) and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.
Clearly she has not visited Australia because there have been no reports to my knowledge of Muslim women not wearing headgear dealing with this kind of backlash. I am not arguing, however, that there are not cultural and patriarchal pressures to don the veil.” But how is this pressure to submit to cultural pressures and conform to traditional dress confined to Muslim countries?
In the West, young girls – some as young as six – dress in what I consider provocatively and they are opting to be sexualised at such a young age through encouragement from what they see in the social and mass media and emulating young teenage girls. Young teenagers, in turn, dress scantily, succumbing to peer pressure to look like adults. But are they indeed prepared for the complex world of unwanted attention, dating, sex and relationships? More to the point, do we hear Muslim feminists telling us in Australia how young girls should be dressing?
Autonomy is critical for those who live according to the choices they make . A behaviour is not autonomous if it is driven by peer pressure, or chaotic emotions. Yet it is the Muslim woman wearing a hijab or burka that is denounced for not having agency or autonomy, not the teenager growing up in Western democracies.
Feminist Naomi Wolf has spoken about the dress required of women living in Muslim countries:
“The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.”[5
One only had to visit Morocco to see how Muslim women are exercising freedom and agency. There I witnessed women at beaches with hijabs, enjoying a swim and sunshine and encouraging their young girls to play on the sand. From where I am standing, girls dressed to protect against the sun. Not exposing skin to the sun is sensible dress sense, hardly segregation and rejecting modern values. How is it that women being covered are seen as a sexualised objects when young girls dressed scantily are viewed as expressing their independence and exercising choice?
In a white dominant culture, minority voices struggle to be heard, and when you factor in growing Islamophobia, how does one encourage diverse Muslim voices to be speak out and not have others speak on their behalf?
Does this reluctance to talk about social issues extend to other issues? While there are a number of strong female Muslim advocates in Australia who have defended their right to wear headgear, this latest white noise is now the political tool to attack multiculturalism.
Feminists and politicians alike should focus their energies on important issues like peace building and civil liberties and stay out of discussions of cultural practices that harms no one.