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Intelligent debate will respect women wearing the burqa

By Elizabeth Lakey - posted Monday, 6 September 2010


There is undoubtedly an issue with social cohesion. The burqa is a physical barrier. This could be argued to mirror the ghetto element of some of the devout Muslim communities in Melbourne.

The burqa poses a threat to Western perceptions of participation, equality and transparency. But I question how much that perception equates to reality. I consistently see women in burqas participating in every day life - on campus at university, in restaurants and shopping with their families.

After all, this debate would not be an issue if they were forced to remain at home and refused the opportunity to participate in society because we wouldn’t know of their existence. A walk through the suburbs of Dandenong, Noble Park or Flemington will reveal women in burqas going about their everyday business, presumably without their ankles chained beneath their skirts.

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It is interesting that our “enlightened” Western way does not seem to stretch to asking women in the burqa how they feel about it. If we reduce all women under the burqa to unthinking shadows, incapable of free agency because of the cloth that covers them, we do them a much greater disservice than any garment can.

I do not know if the burqa wearers are treated equally with their menfolk. But I do not presume they are not. Our enlightened Western ideals do not give us the right to make assumptions about other people’s relationships.

Are we denying women the choice to wear the burqa? Or just the fact that women who wear the burqa have made the choice to wear it? Either way, we are not displaying a great deal of respect for our covered sisters.

I am not mounting a Western apologist defence for the burqa. Indeed the burqa raises issues of concern. But the paternalistic lack of respect for the women who wear it, masquerading as “enlightened ideals”, is an abomination.

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About the Author

Elizabeth Lakey is a PhD student at the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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