Senator Cory Bernardi really seemed to open a can of worms with his recent calls for an Aussie ban on the burqa. I had thought that this would never be a discussion had in Australia because we don’t share the strong secular values of the French who led the debate in Europe and are on the cusp of formalising their own legislative ban. That said, I’m thrilled that this discussion is at Australian dinner tables because it is another crucial step towards achieving social, political and perhaps legal modernity.
In this debate over the relevance of the ban of Islamic face veils, two issues seem to persist. First, whether such a ban is in the Australian tradition and, second, the potential conflict between religious practice in the public sphere.
It is vital to establish in very clear terms which garments are being discussed in the “burqa ban”. While this seems tedious, the unfortunate situation is that there is tremendous public confusion arising from poor media differentiation between the burqa, niqab and hijab. As with similar European discussions, the Australian “burqa ban” seeks to make the wearing in public of full face covering garments like the burqa and niqab illegal. Such a ban would not include the hijab which is the much more common Islamic garment in Australia and the rest of the world.
So why must the burqa and niqab be banned?
Quite simply, in the public sphere there is a fundamental need for identification. This is not a new concept and has always been essential to the social contract. Our faces are the primary means of identification and covering them for any purpose in public dealings is considered a breach in the social contract. The reasons for this go beyond the obvious security and terrorism concerns and extend into basic issues of personal accountability. In the public sphere, people must be accountable for who they are. At the different layers of the public sphere, different levels of disclosure are necessary. Consider a person who wished to apply for a driver’s license without registering a name or address. Would this be acceptable? Would there be any cultural or religious tradition that would make the lack of disclosure reasonable? On both counts, it’s obvious that such a proposal is unreasonable and no justification would allow for an exception.
As one wishes to progress deeper into the public sphere, more and more disclosure is required to ensure accountability. Opening a bank account, receiving social welfare, posting an overseas package - all of these require different levels of disclosure. Evidence of the conflict between veils and established norms of accountability is already in Australia. Earlier this year, a Northern Territory woman filed a complaint against a hospital for requests to see her face in a job interview, while recently a woman refused to unveil when giving testimony in a WA court case. Common to all levels of public life is the most fundamental disclosure, which is required at all levels of the public sphere (yes, even walking a public street) - the identification of the face.
Recognition of this can be seen in long standing laws banning face coverings in the public domain. These were not introduced as a crusade for women’s rights or as a statement of the incompatibility between Islam and the west. The first woman fined in Italy for wearing a niqab was charged under a law passed nearly 40 years ago in the ‘70s, aimed at ensuring public security.
In a similar vein, enshrining “public facial disclosure” law in Australia does not target Islamic women. Such legislation would ban any form of facial covering in the public sphere for both men and women. Under this, all facial coverings including the burqa and niqab would be banned in addition to motorcycle helmets and balaclavas - with obvious exceptions for necessary health and safety practices.
Hiding the face in public is incompatible with accountable adult participation in society. Accordingly, the justification for a “burqa ban” is obvious, practical and necessary and the argument need not go any further.
Why you should feel good about the burqa ban
The current debate has been hijacked by cultural relativists and religious apologists who insist on making this a discussion about xenophobia and the rights of religious freedom. And, while this presents a tedious and annoying obstacle in the necessary progress toward formalised “public facial disclosure laws”, it also present an opportunity to explain why we should be rejoice in the notion of a “burqa ban”.
Of course it’s important to reassure people that they still have a right to religious practice, but religious practice must reside within current civilised social values and never be in breach of universal human rights and the law. If sections of Islam or any other religion deem female sexuality to be so insidious as to justify the mutilations of female circumcision, clearly this is a situation where religious practice operates outside of universal human rights as agreed upon by the United Nations. The “burqa ban” is merely a more subtle version of this.
Ultimately, if we can establish that the wearing of a burqa or niqab is not a choice - that is, if there is any form of coercion impressed upon the wearer - then it is conclusively an oppressive practice of subjugation and is in breach of basic human rights. If sections of Islam insist on teaching women that their body is so incredibly shameful that the only way to redeem their modesty when in the presence of me, a strange man, is to cover themselves head to toe - this also serves as coercion.
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