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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 23-Sep-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 864

Feminists should see through a garment that crudely defines women


Cultural freedom may be our core dogma, but does it include freedom to be unfree? Bring it home. Say your daughter converts to Islam, as Western women are apparently doing by the bucketload. She comes to dinner in a burqa, tells you it is God’s will, tells you it is forever. How do you respond?

The burqa is seen, here in the latte classes, as a symbol of the fight for cultural tolerance. But is this reasonable?

Fred Nile’s near-total isolation in Parliament during the second reading of his anti-burqa bill in June was no doubt due in part to the flavour of his support, namely Roy Smith, of the Shooters’ Party (a natural alliance, this, between Christians and lion killers).

But it’s the same in my neck of the woods, where the right-to-burqa is a flag waved not only by the left but by anyone who wishes to be – or seem to be – untainted by racism.

We further accept the burqa, as a total-immersion device, as the defining icon of feminine modesty, a raised finger to supposedly blatant Western sexualism. This implicit criticism, and the West’s meek acceptance of it, heightens the garment’s tolerance-value (in a manner remarkably like turn-the-other-cheek Christianity). But I digress.

As Fautmeh Ardati told a Lakemba rally, burqa-wearers reject “the Western secular way of life, which robs a woman of her dignity, honour and respect, where she is considered little more than a commodity to be bought and sold”.

Never mind the “go home then” response that such sentiments invite. That’s childish, I expect, and – worse – predictable. More interesting is to unpick the garment’s all-important symbology.

Is the burqa dignified? Does it show respect and sexual modesty? Is that what’s really going on? Or is it the opposite? Does the burqa reduce a woman to concentrated essence of sex?

The Nile bill, which had its second reading in the upper house, doesn’t mention the burqa or the niqab (burqa with eye-slot, instead of netting). It doesn’t mention women or Islam. Based on the Belgian precedent it would ban identity-hiding face coverings of any sort – visored helmets, balaclavas, Reagan masks, diving bells.

The burqa is all that and more. It is not a mask. It doesn’t replace the wearer’s personality with another designed (like the ancient Greek theatre mask, or persona) to intensify communion. The burqa is a blank; a deliberate erasure not only of public face, but of one’s entire public existence. Not new self, un-self.

But that’s not all, for the burqa is the ultimate interior; an absent presence, inside with no outside. As such, it is the ultimate symbol of female sexuality. The ultimate womb-room.

What would induce a woman to such self-erasure? Three things, it seems to me. One, god. Two, politics. Three, love.

Many women insist, with Ardati, that “we dress like this because it is the command of Allah, not any man”. But any number of imams are on record contradicting her on the question of God’s will.

Hassan Chalghoumi, the chairman of the Conference of French Imams, told IslamOnline, “we support any law that bans the wearing of face veils in France”. Ameer Ali, the vice-president of the Regional Islamic Da’wah Council of South-East Asia and the Pacific, describes the burqa as “the lingering relic of a patriarchal, misogynistic and tribal culture” that governs a woman’s mindset as well as her body and has no basis in the Koran.

As to politics, it’s easy to grasp the male rationale – woman as territory, as temptation, as distraction – and only a small stretch to see that women, too, may be sufficiently politicised to trade the liberties of Western dress for the political point-scoring of the burqa.

(Conversely, liberal imams such as Chalghoumi see burqa-devotion – and other “gender apartheid” policies such as intra-mosque separation – as an attempt to “tarnish” Muslim minorities in the West and so fuel fundamentalism.)

On love? It is also plausible, given the strange and convoluted nature of female sexuality, that a woman in love might wish to keep herself from the eyes of “all men” for the enjoyment of one. For both parties, shrouding can be a sexual intensifier. (By contrast, the near-naked bodies spread all over Bondi any weekend – male and female – may be immodest and to that extent un-Islamic, but they could hardly be called sexualised.) Eros, as the Victorians knew, is a mystery-dweller.

Out in the world, though, the burqa precludes proper social interaction. So the question for society is whether it’s OK for this internalised, sexualised bedroom identity to be one’s only self, all others erased, and for that decision to be gender-based. Especially when our social norms require both genders to shift from their animal, sexual selves into more abstract daytime avatars; the idea of the professional.

It is alarming to find oneself agreeing with Fred Nile, especially on gender issues. But feminists should fess up. The burqa belongs in cultures that still have bride-price. It is an antediluvian title deed, an all-enveloping, owned sexual identity. It’s not for sale, because it is already bought and paid for. If that’s not commodification, I’ll burn my bra.


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