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burqa 2

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 13-May-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 856

Let’s face facts, the burqa is an affront to feminism


Who knows the difference between ethics and morality? Belgium does, for one. Technically, there’s not a lot in it. The dictionary makes ethics and morality synonyms, each relating to our cumulative attempts to tell right from wrong and act accordingly.

Aristotle’s Ethics examines what it means to be good; for him, and many thinkers since, ethics and moral philosophy are one.

In everyday life, though, we tend to distinguish on a public-private basis. “Morality” tends to imply a code that is personal, often sexual and, just as often, religious in origin. “Ethics” meanwhile, denotes a public and generally secular amalgam of these values. The baked crust, if you will, atop the pie. Hence talk of professional and corporate ethics, ethical investing and, of course, ethics taught in religion’s place in schools.

The St James Ethics Centre’s chief, Simon Longstaff, argues similarly, defining ethics as “a conversation … [on] the question, ‘what ought one to do’?” Moralities, he says – and he stresses the plural – are the voices in that conversation; one Jewish, one Christian, one Hindu, one Muslim and so on.

Ethics, in this sense, come into play where there is conflict between moralities, or between rules within a morality – as when the truth imperative cuts across kindness.

This supports those who argue that ethics (and comparative religion) are appropriate subjects for schools – especially the public schools of an avowedly secular state. But the teaching of religion as belief, or a moral code, is best done at home.

Even so, the public-private distinction might seem merely semantic but for the growth in public conflict over personal moralities. Take Tiger Woods (or, like as not, he’ll take you).

Never mind all the jokes about whether he can still get it in the hole. Woods’s concupiscence (120 affairs in five years, plus his neighbour’s daughter) is a remarkable achievement but in no sense is it a public issue.

Tiger’s wrist action made him a public figure, sure, but it made no promises as to his husbandliness. If it were match-fixing he’d been caught at, sure, we’d have had every right to feel betrayed.

But the public carry-on over Tiger’s priapic predilections is a simple category error that says as much about our desperation for heroes as his for conquest.

The battle of the burqa is another instance. Generally characterised as a question of personal religious freedoms, the burqa business has Australian politicians of all stripes thoroughly intimidated.

Now, I haven’t read the Koran (or any other Good Book, cover to cover) but most commentators agree, while it adjures modesty of dress for both genders, it is silent on the burqa. And even if you do consider the burqa a religious and moral duty, that’s still just one voice in the conversation.

Similarly, religious freedom is one principle among many, and clearly wouldn’t pertain for religious beliefs that included, say, mass suicide or ritual bestiality (both of which have been genuine religious practices). So the question is, are there other principles that the burqa flouts? And the answer, I believe, is yes.

It’s not, as Senator Cory Bernardi would have it, about burqa banditry. There are plenty of other ways of hiding guns and identities, if you’re up to no good. Nor am I anti-modesty. Indeed, there’s a part of me that entirely sees the point of purdah, especially as modern girlhood confronts us with the ugly consequences of disinhibition.

At my local pool teen females are the set dreaded by and above all others. Storming carelessly into the change room, and without a nanosecond’s thought for the rest of humanity, they stomp the amicable quietude beneath a roar of high-decibel blather about food, boys and handbags – manifestations, you understand, of a single solipsistic appetite – all of it delivered in, like, the latest chewing gum drawl.

Meanwhile, around the edges, the change room’s original inhabitants try, and fail, to put it down to post-exertion endorphins before drawing a single unspoken conclusion. Stinking bad manners. Like veterans of some unspeakable war, we wonder whether this was what feminism fought for.

But losing modesty is a small problem compared with losing face. And – this is weird – although Belgium’s burqa banning is characterised as a victory for the far right, in fact, dammit, it’s a feminist issue.

Democracy pivots on the universal franchise; the presumption for each individual of a public identity, as well as a private one. To cover someone’s face in public, to reduce them to a walking tent, is to declare them lacking such identity, destroying any possibility of their meaningful public existence. It is, literally, to efface them.

To hide the face is to hide the person. As Shada Islam, Europe correspondent for the Pakistan paper Dawn, wrote last week, most European Muslim women have little patience with the burqa or its wearers, seeing it as “a sad process of self-isolation and self-imposed exile”.

And while you could see even exile as a personal right, it does directly contradict a public duty, the duty of public presence. The morality of identity-erasure may be (barely) acceptable, but the ethics are not. Brave little Belgium.


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