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Burqa and Niqab: they cover the face, not the mind

Visitors of Afghan nationality wearing hijabs outside Parliament House yesterday. Lukas Coch/AAP

A call to ban the burqa has permeated Australian political discussions since police raided the homes of suspected Islamist extremists in Sydney and Brisbane on September 18.

Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi and Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie linked both fundamentalism and the alleged oppression of women to the burqa: Bernardi’s tweet (see below) was matched by Lambie’s characterisation of the burqa as “a national security risk”.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Tony Abbott offered his opinion. Let’s remind ourselves what he said:

I have said before that I find [the burqa] a fairly confronting form of attire. Frankly, I wish it was not worn but we are a free country, we are a free society and it is not the business of government to tell people what they should and shouldn’t wear.

He also indicated he wouldn’t oppose a parliamentary ban on the burqa, were it to be proposed.

Yesterday, new security changes for the Senate and House of Representatives were approved: visitors wearing facial coverings will have to sit in a separate area of the public gallery shielded by glass panels.

Speaker of the House Bronwyn Bishop, and Stephen Parry (the president of the Senate), approved the changes; Abbott asked officials to reconsider last night.

A niqab is a type of veiling practice that covers the entire body, hair and the face but it leaves the eyes uncovered, in contrast to the burqa, which also covers the eyes. Hijab on the other hand is an umbrella term that refers to Muslim modest clothing and head cover. It does not cover the face. eltpics/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Curiously, despite this mounting anxiety over the burqa and the political debates to which it has given rise in the Australian Parliament, there has never been a report of national security risk related to women wearing the burqa or niqab, and no woman dressed in this fashion has ever tried entering Parliament House, the very place from which senators are campaigning to ban them. So if women in niqab or burqa have never caused a national security risk in Australia, what is this hype about?

National security is important to everyone, let there be no doubt about it. And Muslims are no exception. They too want to live and raise their families in a safe and secure society.

Women’s liberation is important too. And if Australia really wants to liberate women, there are many pressing battles they can join. Women’s education, particularly in the face of current budgetary proposals, and women’s safety (especially Aboriginal women’s) from domestic physical and sexual violence are just two examples.

If there are concerns in Australia about national security or about the oppression of women, they have nothing to do with Muslim women or their clothing. It is time to change the narrative about Muslim women’s identities and to stop defining them exclusively by their clothing.

Many non-Muslims perceive veiling – the burqa and niqab especially – as a sign of religious extremism and possible political militancy. What may be less known is the fact that many Muslims also tend to be wary of women who cover their face. While most Muslims acknowledge that covering one’s hair as a religious duty, many believe the face veil is not an Islamic prescription, but rather a cultural tradition from certain geographical areas (notably, from Pashtun areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and from the Gulf region) that has been superimposed on Islam and fused with its teachings.

Afghan burqa-clad women sit at the venue of an election campaign event of incumbent Afghan President and presidential candidate Hamid Karzai in Herat, western Afghanistan, in 2009. Jalil Rezayee/EPA

To substantiate their condemnation, some Muslims point to the fact that wearing a face veil is forbidden during the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj).

In fact, there are many jokes that circulate in Arab and Muslim-majority societies about women who wear the burqa. Many of these are published in daily newspapers with or without cartoons and relished by younger and older people alike. One such joke comments on people’s reactions when seeing a woman wearing a black burqa:

Which part of her is the front and which is her back?

In an illustrated book now translated into several European languages and titled Burqa! (2007), Simona Bassano di Tuffilo, an Italian artist, drew 24 illustrations to accompany a short piece written by Jamila Mujahed, an Afghani journalist.

The text describes Mujahed’s experience as a woman before and after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. The story tells of her difficulties at the news that she had to stop work and wear a burqa, her challenges learning to wear it and walk around covered from head to toe, and the violence against women perpetrated by the Taliban that she witnessed on the streets.

The illustrations in the book depict some of the ironic social consequences of all women wearing the burqa. In one, a small terrorised boy searches for his mother in a room full of women all dressed alike, screaming, “mommy!”. In another, two women in burqas speak to each other, one of them asking, “Who are you?,” and the other responding, “Your sister”.

In a third, one woman in a burqa says to another: “Sorry to be late, I did not know what to wear.”

Other illustrations focus on men’s hypocrisy when they force women to wear the burqa, on the one hand, and then, on the other, take advantage of women’s anonymity to flirt with them with impunity. My favourite is the one in which two men attend an event full of women in burqas. They look around with concern and say, “You never know if your wife is observing you”.

I enjoy these cartoons because they humanise both men and women who act in recognisable ways, whether in a Muslim-majority society or in a Muslim-minority one. I also enjoy them because they voice genuine questions and thoughts that many people have when faced with a woman in burqa or niqab.

Women wearing the niqab participate in a flash mob protest in Sydney, 2010. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

I am not unfamiliar with such questions. I have often had mixed feelings about women who wear a niqab or burqa. I even admit to having felt some anxiety when I encountered a woman who wore an ultra-conservative style of veiling. I understand why many non-Muslims (and some Muslims) are afraid of women in burqas, or why they perceive them as passive and oppressed.

But I have also been powerfully challenged in my own thinking, especially since the news coverage of the Arab Spring, the 2011 revolutions that rocked the Arab world. I have been struck by the way some Arab and Muslim women have been portrayed during the various Arab revolutions and until today. Many who appeared on newscasts and who expressed strong political views against Arab dictators and offered sophisticated analyses were veiled. Some of them covered their face.

Melbourne street art. Michael Coghlan

Such images have made me question some of my own presuppositions about women in the burqa and niqab. These women could not be labelled as ultra-conservative or cast away as brain-washed. And they were certainly not silent or submissive. These women surprised me and the world.

These were revolutionary women who did not let men speak for them and who were not shy to speak their minds in front of national and international cameras. It did not matter how they were dressed and what their faith was. What mattered were their staunch beliefs and political actions.

So today, when I see a woman wearing the burqa, I remind myself a woman who wears the most conservative style of niqab or burqa still has a mind, a political perspective, and a voice. The niqab may cover her face and head, but it does not cover her mind.

As I discuss in my recent book What Is Veiling? (2014), women who wear the hijab, niqab or burqa may appear conservative on the outside. But anyone who actually engages in a conversation with them quickly learns that underneath their veils, one often finds sociopolitically active citizens, assertive individuals engaged in personal, social, economic, political and spiritual advancement.

In a liberal democratic society, we ought to uphold women’s rights and protect their choice to wear any kind of veil, no matter how long it is or how much of the body and face it covers.

What Is Veiling? by Sahar Amer is published by The University of North Carolina Press and Edinburgh University Press. It is distributed in Australia through New SouthBooks

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