No place for religious discrimination in Parliament

Visitors of Afghan nationality wearing hijabs outside Parliament House in Canberra. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

The “ban the burqa” campaign which has dominated Canberra this week has been one of the ugliest displays of religious intolerance and parliamentary ignorance in recent years. It has culminated in a particular nasty step: the segregation of people with face coverings into a closed area of the public gallery of our national parliament.

Our parliament has revealed a deep lack of understanding of Muslim Australians. Few if any Australian women wear the burqa. Some would wear the niqab in public, with only their eyes visible, many more would wear another form of veil that leaves the face fully exposed. The lack of distinction and refinement in public pronouncements mean that all these women have been lumped together, and publicly shamed by their elected representatives.

Prominent statements in this campaign from Jacqui Lambie, Kevin Andrews, even the Prime Minister, have focused unduly on their own personal discomfort at the burqa. (Though again, it’s unclear whether they actually mean the burqa, or the niqab, or the chador, or the kerudung).

Their personal discomfort is largely irrelevant. What has been proposed is not a debate about whether anyone likes or dislikes sartorial hijab, a debate we may freely have, preferably with respect. Instead, Cory Bernardi has advocated an outright ban, not only in Parliament’s public spaces but across the whole of Australian society.

There are only two rational explanations for this campaign.

First is national security. Yet Muslim women who observe sartorial hijab are subject to the same security screenings as everybody else, in airports, courts, and Parliament. These have been perfectly adequate for the last decade, and if there is a problem, it should be remedied - for everyone.

Second is that some forms of sartorial hijab offend some Australians. But here we have trespassed into the arena of free speech, freedom of religion, and discrimination. There is no justification here for a change of the law. If the law were changed to remove choice, we should be very, very frightened of further incursions on public liberties. What will be next – Bondi beach? Clerical collars? Wedding veils?

The consequences of the present debate are shameful. The debate runs the risk of further exacerbating tensions, leading to violence and possibly death. Moreover, the shameful aspersions that are cast on Muslim Australian women reproduce the original objections of those advocating a “ban on the burqa”. For this attribution of shame further excludes these women from public debate, promotes unthinking conformity, and is downright oppressive.

If someone believes that face and head coverings demean the wearer, the response should be compassion, empathy, education, and empowerment. Where is the increase in funding for Muslim women’s refuges?

At the foundations of democratic government are the belief in liberty and the duty of accountability. This foundation includes freedom of religion and, within the boundaries of the law, freedom of self-expression. The reason we value these aspects of civil society so highly is because they promote free will: the gift of choice, a gift that cannot be forced upon someone but is based on persuasion, learning, practice.

What is so disturbing about the present debate is that members of Parliament have forgotten that they are the ones who need to be held to account. They are the ones who must be subject to the highest standards of transparency.

This is why Parliament House is a public building, and this is why there is a public gallery in each chamber. The public gallery is not there for the entertainment of the members, nor are those sitting in its ranks required to conform to members’ ideas of what dress is appropriate.

Instead, the public gallery is there so that every word spoken and every act taken by the Parliament can be scrutinised by any and every Australian citizen. The public gallery must be open to the whole electorate, Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists alike, regardless of their size, shape and attire.

What would this debate look like if instead of attacking religious dress, Senators Lambie and Bernardi bemoaned the absence of Muslim women in the Parliament itself? What if they established a fund to help such a woman run for office? What if the Minister for Women had a council of advice made up of Muslim women, on education and empowerment strategies for Australian Muslim women?

Let’s hope this decision will be reversed, and that Parliament might apologise by a specific invitation to Muslim women – whatever their dress – to participate in our democracy by observing Parliament doing its work.