What your atheism costs you

Suddenly the world is awash in burqa suspicion and vitriol.

In the past fortnight, headlines have been dominated by bans and proposed bans in Belgium, France and Denmark (home to only three women who wear the burqa), to our own shores, and the boorish postulating of Cory Bernardi:

In my mind, the burka has no place in Australian society. I would go as far as to say it is un-Australian. To me, the burka represents the repressive domination of men over women which has no place in our society and compromises some of the most important aspects of human communication.

As Parliamentary Secretary and spokesperson for the would-be Prime Minister and the Liberal Party, Bernardi’s comments can hardly be dismissed lightly.

His comments also show him for what he is: a conspicuous xenophobe who’s rather fond of fear mongering. His comments are in line with the ideas of the BNP, whose ‘ban the burka’ campaign is inscribed in their manifesto and promoted as a concern about the oppression of Muslim women.

Here’s their leader Nick Griffin’s take on Islam: there’s ‘no place in Europe for it’ and the UK is urgently in need of ‘global chemotherapy against Islam to save civilisation’.

The UK Independent Party also espouses a concern for women’s rights in their call for a ban, while simultaneously stating that the garment is dangerous because it could be concealing terrorists, and is simply ‘not consistent with traditional Britishness’. Greg Sheridan wrote of a similar problem for the French, where the burqa doesn’t adhere to their ‘civic values’.

In a country where a mere 1900 women wear face veils, it is difficult to see how further oppressing an already ‘oppressed group’ is fostering any civic values.

From the smoke of all this paranoia and prejudice, rises a growing movement of people who claim to oppose the burqa for progressive reasons. Writers and feminists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali are feeding the fires of Islamophobia:

Islam is not a European religion … what we are seeing in Europe is that there is conflict between the values of Europe and the values of Islam.

Australian feminist columnists Virginia Haussegger and Elizabeth Farrelly both champion a ban on the burqa. Last week, Farrelly went so far as to imply that the freedom to wear the burqa could be as detrimental and misguided as ‘mass suicide or ritual bestiality (both of which have been genuine religious practices)’.

The most salient example of this trend is famed author, savant and atheist, Christopher Hitchens, in Australia this week as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Hitchens still passes himself off as a radical, and his book attacking God made him a poster boy for atheists and intellectuals the world over.

Hitchens will no doubt receive a rapturous welcome from small-l liberals in Australia who sneer at the parochial bigotry of Cory Bernardi. Yet in Slate last week, Hitchens declared himself in favour of a ban on burqas. His argument is that Islam is trying to force the Western world to abandon its ‘immemorial tradition of equality and openness’ by forcing Muslim women to hide their identities in public – an option not given to any other religion.

He asks: how is abiding the burqa any different to abiding the Klan? And then replies that it’s actually worse because there is no evidence that Muslim women are ‘as passionately committed to wearing a burqa as a male Klansman is committed to donning a pointy-headed white shroud’.

Why should Europeans and Americans, seeking perhaps to accommodate Muslim immigrants, adopt the standard only of the most backward and primitive Muslim states? The burqa and the veil, surely, are the most aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate.

How is his argument any different to Bernardi’s or the BNP’s or Farrelly’s? It’s not. He too reiterates the arguments of those above: this is about women’s liberation, male criminals can hide in the burqa and France is doing a good thing because the burqa is just not ‘French’.

These arguments, hiding behind a veil of progressiveness, all make women wearing the burqa about us – the West and our liberties – as if ‘we’ are the ones under threat, rather than the minority of women wearing burqas in the West. There is no room for these women or their subjectivity in this debate about their oppression, because there is only room for ‘us’; those, like Hitchens, whose way of life is threatened by the wearing of a head-to-toe garment.

What is most striking about the claims of Hitchens, Bernardi and Farrelly is that they won’t engage with Muslim women as whole people; their identity has been stolen, and subsumed by the fight for the ‘greater good’. There is no acknowledgement of individuality through freedom of religion, or the recognition that these burqa-clad women exhibit all the range of qualities and characteristics of an individual.

There is a direct correlation between the rise in Islamophobia and racism and racial crimes in society. It is little wonder when the arguments of Hitchens and the BNP reframe the debate to make it seem as if the ‘Indigenous peoples’ of the West are being invaded, as if it is the war between the West and Islam that Hirsi Ali claims.

It is hard to accept that Hitchens, France, Australia, or Bernardi care about the individual happiness of Muslim women. But they do care about war. And fundamentally, this call for a ban on the burqa is a defence of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; wars that Hitchens zealously campaigned for and Senators like Bernardi continue to support. In the name of freedom and secularism, we invaded these countries with the battle cry: the end of oppression, the delivery of democracy, the liberation of all!

If we pause to consider the immeasurable death, maiming and displacement in these predominantly Muslim nations, we may have to admit that the wars were a mistake; that there is no recognisable liberation of women, or the people; that truth be told, it’s the inverse.

But if the wearing of religious garb can still be made an issue of women’s oppression, then the war of liberation comes to our Western shores.

Over the past decade, Australia has had a hand in the destruction of many things Muslim. Conceivably it’s time to try a new approach so we don’t have to resort to criminalising the burqa and live in a country where it would be a far lesser crime to rip a burqa off a woman – forcibly strip her of this garment via the law – than to allow people freedom of expression and religion, and the freedom to be religious in a public space.

And this sinister vision of the West is much more dangerous when disseminated by Hitchens and his ilk, because Bernardi would never be invited to lecture at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Jacinda Woodhead

Jacinda Woodhead is a former editor of Overland and current law student.

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  1. I’m quite concerned that some writers and commentators that I thought were quite reasonable both here in Australia, and in Europe are speaking in favour of the ban.

    This is a very complex issue, and you make some great points. The thing that concerns me most (and I find quite ironic) is that the voices of Muslim women are being completely silenced by those who argue that the burqa is a sign of oppression. Isn’t the ban oppression? Isn’t the way they’re ignoring the voice of these women oppression?

  2. Until such time as Muslims are allowed to leave Islam without fear of death, there is no such thing as a free choice to wear the burka. Characterising it as an issue of religious freedom is a category error. Unless there is a free choice to *not* wear it, there is no free choice *to* wear it.

    1. b–

      Don’t take this the wrong way, but your comment is racist. And could apply to any religion throughout history.

      The burqa debate has nothing to do with Islam, and everything to do with war on terror racism and old-fashioned colonialism.

      Why is the media preoccupying itself with the burqa, instead of the never-ending wars and civilian death tolls in Afghanistan and Iraq? Why aren’t they focusing on Hitchens, eminent guest of an important literary festival, who advocates perpetual war?

      1. “The burqa debate has nothing to do with Islam, and everything to do with war on terror racism and old-fashioned colonialism.”

        You find it offensive that you’re being told what the issue is and isn’t, but I find it offensive that you decide what the debate “is”. I am against the burka, and it has nothing to do with the wars I also opposed, or colonialism (which I find as repulsive as the next person with a brain). I don’t care for religion, either. My issue with it is purely on a gender equality level, as such. I have many friends who are Islamic – some of them will defend the burka to the death, and choose to wear it, fine. But I know many who do not want to, but cannot from pressure from their community (to the threat of being disowned) and those who have forsaken it but suffer prejudice within their own community because of it. It has nothing to do with the war on terror. It is linked to religion, I suppose, sure, because the roots of the oppression is a conditioned mindset based on a religious faith I do not agree with. I also despise Christianity, whose many faithful western believers do not question the sexism of because they were raised on it and it is part of their faith.

        Your position conveniently puts everyone against the burka into racist contexts, when it has nothing to do with race. I don’t care what race you are beneath the burka, I dislike such a blatant inequality of women, whether some of those women have chosen to empower this idea or not. The majority of prostitutes will tell you what they do is empowering and not part of a patriarchal oppression, but I’m inclined to disagree.

        1. By your admission then Fred it is not religious dress itself that fosters sex inequality, it is the ‘patriarchal oppression’ that takes away true choise for women. Why not focus, then, on dismantling the patriarchy so that women can truly have a choice, rather than just contributing to the problem by telling them, yet again, (albeit from the ‘other side’) what they should or shouldn’t do with their bodies and attire.

  3. I agree with pretty much everything you say in this article, Jacinda. For these people it’s not about women’s rights or freedom of expression; it’s racism. It’s that same old tactic – the name of a just cause perverted to disguise plain old pure unjustifiable prejudice. Ugh.

  4. Comment crossposted at LP…
    The Hirsi Alis, Eltahawys as well as the islamophobic Right have been complaining for some years now that “feminists” are in favour of maintaining the oppression of Muslim women because we’re all complete cultural relativists. Now Jacinda Woodhead is accusing “feminists” (a hivemind, apparently, represented in toto by Virginia Hausegger and Elizabeth Farrelly) of joining forces with Corey Bernardi and UK fascists in harassing Muslim women about their burquas…


    I give up.

    1. Sorry Helen, I’m a bit confused. Are you saying you agree with the ban? That these columnists aren’t feminists? Or they cease to be feminists when we disagree with their stances?

      Feminist is a pretty broad political and cultural label, but both these writers applied it to themselves.

  5. I’m saying we’re damned when we do and damned when we don’t. I’ve been reading numerous commentators complaining about “femininists” who “refuse to condemn” such things as burqua wearing and FGM (totally incorrect, especiin the case of FGM) because of our Po-Mo cultural relativism. Now feminism is being criticised for a *crackdown* on the burqua because Hausegger and Farrelly are for it. I’m against banning them for the same reasons you gave, I suppose I’m just permanently irritated about the opinions people ascribe to imaginary “feminists” on the basis of commentators who, in my opinion, don’t speak for many of us.

    1. Did you even read the article? Where did Jac accuse ‘feminism’ for the crackdown on the burqa?
      And where did she ascribe imaginary opinions to people?

  6. I’m of the opinion that calls to “ban the burqa” are motivated more by plain old bigotry than by ideology. However, I don’t understand why this is a “cost of my atheism.”

    1. One of the things I’m reading at the moment is a book I got from overland to review for them called ‘Politics and Religion in the New Century’, an Australian text out of Sydney Uni. The first chapter by Peter Slezak is as brilliant and thorough a demolition job on Hitchens, Dawkins and Sam “we are at war with Islam’ Harris as you could want. Not only does Slezak expose the hollowness of their ‘atheistic’ position – demonstrating that they are in fact making a major metaphysical commitment without any substance to back it up – but also how this position is actually underpinned by – and completely inseparable from – an antagonism toward Islam which is very deep, racially motivated and horribly sinister. Hitchens and co’s atheism is bullshit, theologically speaking, and their politics so thuggish and crude that it would be embarrassing if it weren’t so frightening.

      1. It might be worth mentioning that Slezak is also an atheist. And at UNSW, he teaches a course where he argues why people shouldn’t believe in god (and he brings it up in his other classes too).

        Being left wing and atheist is not inconsistent. Tariq Ali and As’ad AbuKhalil are obvious examples who come to mind – leftists, secularists from Muslim countries, who do not embrace Islamophobia.

      1. Just as there are plenty of muslims who don’t uncritically support, say, the Taliban, there are plenty of atheists who don’t uncritically support Hitchens et al.

        Just sayin’ 🙂

        1. Exactly. There are many ‘atheisms’ and many Islams and many Christianities and many Buddhisms etc etc. Hitchens’ style of atheism is a pretty crude one, but presented as though it were THE atheism and atheism were one unilateral conglomerate thing.
          Hitchens and Dawkins ignorance of religious argument shouldn’t be underestimated I think. But its the political sub-text that really creeps me out.

  7. And this is how he – Hitchens – works to liberate the women he ‘owns’: “No woman of mine need ever work. None of them ever have, so it’s just as well: their day job is me and the bambini.” (The Age: Good Weekend, May 15, 2010).

    These so-called intellectual and nouveau atheists (including his good friend Dawkins) always seem to overlook or ignore the voice of the Other, in their totalitarian grand-plans for universal freedom without religion and its practices. Or… in their war against religion (and culture), specifically of the one kind.

    What a vanilla world their world would be, where every thing and everyone is formed in the image of their white-male, ‘intellectual’ creator? What cultural practices would they have us enjoy then? Swimsuit competitions or beauty pageants where ‘they’ take it (the burqa) off, and don attire that should be more suitable for the white-male, corporate elites who decide what women should and shouldn’t wear in other ways? But it seems, even some of these freedom-fighting men don’t even like this: For example, the Lebanese born Rima Fakih now Miss USA, (as Jeff Sparrow has pointed out http://web.overland.org.au/2010/05/18/pathological-anti-islam/ ).

    We need to work to reveal these men and their rhetoric for what it is, as this article has done.

  8. Isn’t it wonderful that the West is leading the way and showing all those small-minded religious folk how to liberate their women. I can’t think why on earth Muslim women don’t want to take off their burqas and everything else and pose for Zoo Magazine. And why are they not so keen on Bratz dolls and pink hot pants for eight-year-olds with ‘cheeky’ emblazoned on the back? Hmm, if only the whole world was as ‘liberated’ as we are.

  9. That’s a good one Claire!

    Also… I find all this attention on Hitchens and Dawkins really boring. I’m atheist but I find their writings on atheism are pretty lame. I found Michel Onfray’s book presented a much better critique of religion. And I would also recommend the first atheist book ever written, which ironically was written by a priest: Jean Meslier.

    1. It is a pity that many others don’t seem to be finding this attention to Hitchens and Dawkins really boring; and aren’t finding hope (and/or clarity) in other texts, including Meslier’s. I was overwhelmed by the almost Hillsongesque ‘religious’ fervour whipped up by the atheist conference and have been concerned since, at an almost blind acceptance of what these MEN have to say. Until people do see through this dogma, we need articles like this that deconstruct texts like those of Hitchens and Dawkins, and reveal what the likes of Bernadi are really up to.

      1. Thank you bscare. As an aside, it appears a number of people are delighting in deconstructing and unravelling the myth of (at least) Hitchens at the moment (nobody seems to have enjoyed Hitch-22 – go figure). For anyone who missed it, there’s a great profile piece (read character assassination) on Hitchens in the Guardian:

        With hindsight, there was an early clue to his appetite for combat in the ferocity of Hitchens’ support for the Falklands Royal Naval task force, shared by few on the left. “I couldn’t possibly see the UK defeated by those insanitary riffraff!” he exclaims. “This was a diabolical liberty.” But Islamic fundamentalism presented a more promisingly meaty foe than a tinpot Argentine dictator, and ever since the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Hitchens says, “I knew there would be some huge intrusion into the heart of civilisation from barbarism.”

        And so chief among Hitchens’ emotions by the end of the day on 11 September was “exhilaration. Because I thought, now we have a very clearly drawn confrontation between everything I hate and everything I love. There is something exhilarating about that. Because, OK, now I know what I’m doing.” Just as his father had felt during the second world war? “Yes, exactly,” he agrees.

        “Anyone who’s studied the 20th century wants to know how they would have shaped up. And you don’t usually get the chance to find out. My son considered joining up, and I’m the first Hitchens for quite a while who hasn’t put on a uniform – and it would have been quite amazing if he had.”

        To say that Hitchens is stirred – even obsessed – by the question of courage would be to state the obvious. It seems therefore highly likely that his longing for the great Orwellian test – the momentous moral challenge to match the 1930s – might tempt him to overstate the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. “Do I ask myself,” he replies, “do I think our civilisation is superior to theirs? Yes, I do. Do I think it’s worth fighting for? Most certainly.”

        That wasn’t really the question.

        “Well, I know how to correct atavism in myself, yes, I do,” he retorts. As evidence, he offers the fact that after 9/11 he voted against his Washington apartment block flying the American flag. “So I was pleased to find out I wasn’t in the mob majority in that way.” But then he adds, bizarrely, “The other thing is, what happens when this ebbs, and the flag gets tatty? And you start seeing cabs with flags worn to rags, making the flag look crappy.”

        For someone feted for his adversarial prowess, I’m surprised by how often he sabotages an argument with a lurch into self-indulgence. For example, he has written at length about the failings of Guantánamo Bay. But then he says to me, “Guantánamo slightly threatened at one point to change my attitude towards capital punishment. I thought it would have been good if some of those people could have been taken out and shot. Yeah, put up against a wall. Lincoln would have done it. Of course, I would have been against it if they had. But that’s how I felt.”

        There’s more but I can’t copy the entire article.

  10. I think the Klansman comment is an interesting one (though I don’t agree with it).

    Anti-muslim hysteria aside, I’ve always thought the intrinic fear in the West of muslim head and body coverings are tied heavily to the history of hood-wearing in the west.

    Executioners and the executed, bushrangers, klansmen, bankrobbers, witches, ghosts…Almost from the womb, many Westerners are taught that head and body covering is almost always for sinister or law breaking purposes.

    The first time my (then toddler) son saw a woman in full black muslim dress walking towards us, he screamed at the top of his lungs and started crying and digging his fingernails into my legs trying to get away.

    (Then again, he also used to run up to random black people on the street with his arms outstretched and a big grin on his face so I guess it’s about positive/negative reinforcement).

    Of course, the reasons behind the adult distaste for Muslim dress is more complex, but it’s worth noting that even before the religion/terrorism hysteria kicks in, the foundation for fear has been laid.

  11. The act of removing oneself from the male gaze, and thereby negating it, can be read as both a moral one and one with political intent. Concealing the female body, especially the face, is a threat to a Judeo-Christian patriarchy whose philosophical roots go to the conquering of feminised Nature. Atheists like Hitchens and defenders of all things ‘Australian’, like Bernadi, implicitly champion this form of sexual hegemony to which they add an ideological argument that conflates a legitimate cultural practice with terrorism. It is a blatantly ideological position which has nothing to do with liberty or democracy and everything to do with authoritarian power.

    1. The point, Boris, is not the moral or political ideology that leads to wearing the burqa or not, so much as the freedom to choose one’s own ideological standpoint and its expression.

      I personally am an atheist and a feminist, and I would never choose to wear a burqa. But the problem is not that women should choose to wear a burqa, but rather when they do not have a choice at all. The insidious and sometimes overt pressures of family, community and religion on some women to wear a burqa are extremely problematic. Equally so is an enforced requirement to NOT wear one.

      If the West really wanted to tackle issues of women’s oppression, the solution is surely to begin with the circumstances that negate women’s choices, rather than simply override one form of oppression with another.

  12. Just wonder what Hitchens means when he talks about women covering their bodies being an option not given to any other religion, in the Slate last week, as you point out Jacinda. Be interesting if Aussie citizens, for no other reason than the fact they felt like it, dressed in full regalia. Would their dress, even if it covered the whole body but had nothing to do with religion, be outlawed?

    Other than that, for me it’s the attempt to homogenize people that I find erroneous about the opposition to the burqa. Women’s issue or not, this is, I agree Jacinda, the west putting down its elephantine foot, yet again.

  13. so the ‘solution’ fred, is for ‘big white man come and rip burqa off’, is it? on behalf of the women? The issue is multifaceted, and there is no quick fix, and banning is tantamount to colonialism, which you say you oppose. There are many ‘hegemonies’ exerting and vying for absolute power here, yours is only one of them. There are also the communities (as you point out), the patriarchal oppressors (as Maxine points out), the colonizers (like Bernadi), the so-called white male intellectual new atheist(which is essentially one of colonisation too), the shock jocks etc, and many of these seek to draw the argument into an us versus them. This was after all, a tactic used just after 9/11: \if you are not for us you are against us.\ It is just not that simple.

    I don’t think Jacinda has done this at all, and I think she is quite correct to draw in people like Hitchens to the debate. In its proposal for the disposal of ugly religion, (which we are quite sure is responsible for all wars and oppression), the new atheism for which Hitchens and Dawkins are the high-priests, seems so attractive at first. And with things like the atheist conference it has attracted many new ‘followers’ – i think someone has used the word uncritical somewhere in one of the responses. But this new atheism is from one perspective, and it’s project seems just as othering – and as us-v-them as many of these religions it aims to banish.

  14. The real problem with banning the burka is that it is not possible. If I thought stupidity like covering women up so they can’t be seen could be legislated out of existence, I’d support it. Arguments against the burka are valid (and it doesn’t matter if people arguing against it support the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or not) but the issue will not be resolved until people get the idea of “god told me to” out of their heads. In other words, never.

  15. The burka is starting to emerge as the preferred dress of daylight robbers. There have been a number of instances overseas of this, and at least one in Australia. That is, of male (?) thieves dressing up in a burka, openly robbing people, and making off.
    If enough of this starts to happen, pressure will rise for burka wearing in public to be banned, as are motorcycle helmets in banks right now.
    But why does a thief wear a burka, mask, helmet or whatever? It is done in order to obliterate their individual identity. The burka-demanding cultures of Afghanistan and elsewhere hold that a woman as an individual human personality shall only be available to her husband and family while within the walls of their home.
    Such obliteration of the personality is the stuff that gave George Orwell nightmares, and compelled him to write ‘1984’.

    1. yes, i see the emerging trend Ian, one robbery in Australia compared to how many robberies etc done in hoodies or ski masks? I think your argument (or incredible lack of) would give Orwell nightmares too, and outlawing the burqa could be added to say, all the other laws and infringements of civil rights that have been made since 9/11.

  16. Relevant to this discussion also is Johann Hari’s piece ‘Should we keep Islamists in Britain but deport their victims?’

    Unfortunately many on the western Left see themselves and Islamists as having a common enemy in most western governments and institutions. I think they are kidding themselves. All religions demand mind closure, but Islam does it in spades.


  17. Lots of things demand mind closure. A blanket statement such as ‘all religions demand mind closure’ – doesn’t seem helpful. Almost everyone who has ever lived has been religious. This seems to suggest something about the human condition that could be usefully opened up for discussion, not some kind of pathological complex worthy only of our contempt. Stripping women of burqas and in effect saying ‘Now you’re free!’ seems like a kind of violence to me. Obliteration of the personality comes in much more subtle and effective forms than the wearing of burqas. Wearing a burqa can also be a choice. It may be confronting for western men and women for all kinds of reasons, but I doubt if our love of ‘freedom’ is at the root of that confrontation.

    1. Interesting to note that a majority of women in the West who wear the burqa are religious converts, something the commentators and writers above always fail to mention.

  18. In fact I may start dressing up as Tony Abbott and committing crimes. In this way public pressure and shock-jock hysteria will soon require that all Tony Abbotts be declared illegal, their tailored-suits stripped from them, their ears taped back and their freedoms severely curtailed. Possibly on Nauru. For our own safety.

  19. bscare: If enough robbers take to wearing burkas, pressure will mount for it to be banned in public. Do you disagree with that possibility? That is, aside from whether or not you think Muslim women should be forced to wear the burka or not? Take to wearing a ski mask over your face in public; even in a ski resort on a fine day, and see how far you get before someone assumes you are up to no good.

    Stephen: “Lots of things demand mind closure.” Perhaps then you could suggest a few, or perhaps a lot. But show me anything that demands mind closure, and I’ll show you a religion.
    “A blanket statement such as ‘all religions demand mind closure’ – doesn’t seem helpful.” That may be your own response, but is what I said true?
    “Almost everyone who has ever lived has been religious… human condition… opened up for discussion, not some kind of pathological complex worthy only of our contempt.” Your words, not mine.
    Women coerced by ‘community’, relatives, imams, and religious custom to wear burkas, whether or not they actually want to, have my pity, not my contempt.

    Jacinda Woodhead’s lead piece here is very confused. She says that as Cory Bernardi, the BNP’s Nick Griffin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Virginia Haussegger and Elizabeth Farrelly all allegedly want to ban the burka, that makes them all politically the same. If she recognises any difference between them, she is not letting on about it.

    I am not sure what ‘Islamophobia’ is, as it is nowhere defined in the above piece. For my own part, I encounter Muslims every other day and get on quite well with them. But I think Islam as it is practiced in many parts of the world is a terrible religion; and part of that opinion is derived from contact with Muslims, and part from the writings of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others. Hirsi Ali is eminently well qualified to judge Islam, having been brought up in it, subjected to FGM and the usual female restrictions, and bombarded with death threats when she announced that she was leaving it. As far as I know, she has been living under armed guard ever since.

    But perhaps if she read a bit of Jacinda Woodhead, she would change her mind.

    1. Ian, I’m getting the feeling that you are not willing to wait for the mass increase of burqa wearing robbers; that you are keen to inflict this “kind of violence” as stephen quite usefully puts it, before all ‘robbers’ come robed in burqas and this is the next big crime wave. But this kind of violence that is sought, is not just a a “kind of violence” – you can’t put a pig in a dress, nor can you put forward a straw man, which is what the argument about de-burqaring to fight/prevent crime is. I would suggest that there are many more issues that need attention here before this. (As if we don’t have enough crime, with a youth seemingly out of control with gang war, and that old chestnut alcohol fueled violence – the violence exercised by the police force, the media and the state is seldom critically examined.)

      And this has been argued before here, in this space and we live in an economy of fear. Much of this fear is whipped up by those like Bernadi, who have no real concern for the empowerment of women. It is a climate where more powerful groups exercise sociopolitical domination over, alienate and repress the less powerful Other. And whilst Islam and all patriarchal religions oppress women, the de-burqaring of women by the great white (patriarchal, colonising) male does not work to free women, but only to enslave them in other projects.

      I also disagree: the article that has started this conversation, dialogue or communication on this very important and highly complex issue is not confused at all.

  20. bscare: “Ian, I’m getting the feeling that you are not willing to wait for the mass increase of burqa wearing robbers; that you are keen to inflict this ‘kind of violence’ as stephen quite usefully puts it, before all ‘robbers’ come robed in burqas and this is the next big crime wave.”

    Get whatever feelings you choose. Just don’t credit me with them. You choose to portray me as advocating a burka ban in order to fight crime. I have done no such thing.

    I do not think that patriarchal Australian vigilantes are about to start ripping burkas off women anytime soon, though I note that the converse applies in places like Afghanistan. But I note also that you choose not to answer my question, so I assume it’s in your too hard basket.

    What I do think it is that it’s highly likely that a few more thefts by burka-clad thieves will prompt such state action against the burka as to make it a totally impractical garment. That, by the way, should not be taken to mean that I am in favour either of robbery, or state control of costume.

    The exquisite Muslim ‘cultural practice’ of FGM is illegal in Australia, but it probably goes on none the less. I believe it to be indefensible on every ground, and support its banning 200%. The issue of burka bans is interesting, since there are liberal arguments to be made for and against; something overlooked by Jacinta Woodhead in her eagerness to point out the obscene political company liberal people like Hitchens, Haussegger, Farrelly and (most ironic of all) Ayaan Hirsi Ali appear (to Woodhead) to have fallen into.

    For my own part, I prefer simply to remind people of the Orwellian depersonalisation involved in burka-wearing, and of the nightmarish religion that promotes it. And I hope that that you, bscare, have to date been not been brainwashed by the pomo pocorrect as far as to favour political alliance with Islam: about the most reactionary mass movement in the modern world. So I suggest you have a read of Bill Meuhlenberg’s review of ‘THE SWORD OF THE PROPHET: Islam – History, Theology, Impact on the World’ by Serge Trifkovic at http://www.newsweekly.com.au/articles/2006jul08_b1.html .

    “Is Islam a religion of peace? Are Muslim suicide-bombers aberrations in Islam, or a natural by-product of it?

    “Trifkovic answers these questions in the context of an important Islamic distinction. Muslims believe that the world is divided into two camps, the Dar-al-Islam (the House of Islam) and Dar-al-Harb (the House of War). There can be no lasting peace until the House of War (those who are non-Muslims) finally submit to the House of Islam.

    “Says Trifkovic: ‘The House of Islam is in a state of permanent war with the lands that surround it; it can be interrupted by temporary truces, but peace will only come with the completion of global conquest.’ Thus, the real meaning of jihad is the perpetual and obligatory war of Muslims against unbelievers.”

    Ironically, News Weekly was set up by BA Santamaria, who had a vision and a hope that Australia would in time become a Catholic base for the conversion of Asia. I think this gives that NW crowd considerable first-hand authority to talk about religions with goals of world domination.

    Good luck.

  21. Reminds me of the past … and all those people who said miniskirts should be banned. Oh the horror of all that leg .. some women even had the audacity to have bare legs (shock horror).

    So ban it .. but what should they wear? Ok they go nude .. no that wont work, they will be arrested.

    Ok then a micro mini skirt … tut tut (unless they are a celeb of course).

    And so on, anyone with a brain should be able to work out the rest of the argument. Why stop there, ban Muslim women, which means all women (unless you create a special religion police), from wearing scarfs around their head (there goes a lot of Christian and Jewish women as well).

    While at it lets force a lot of Indian women to wear skirts and ban trousers for women.

    Should we have a maximum skirt hight police. A lot of women here might remember having their skirt length measured at school, too short then they had to go home and change (still happens nowadays in some schools) … are we now advocating if it is too long they have to go home and change?

    To what ever that is of course, subject to change daily according to ‘fasionism'(deliberate, think about it).

    How is it is that some people feel they can ‘order’ females to wear what they want them to wear? The difference between a ‘us’ and (say) their fathers ordering them to cover up … is precisely zero. Or for current women remembering when their fathers and mothers saying ‘you can’t wear that going out’.

    And for those women who support this nonsense… hang your head in shame, the Government legislating what you can wear?

    Notice (for the slow on this argument) the lack of discussion about what men should/should not wear/look like.

  22. Stephen: But of late the burka has aroused my curiosity and I have done a bit of googling round. One of the best pieces I have come across is


    The National Review is a right-wing US Journal, but Stanley Kurtz goes into the history of the thing in a way that its Islamic defenders and leftish sympathisers do not.

    My own hunch is that the burka began as a mechanism to prevent intra-tribal warfare over women back in the days when the Islamic Empire was just getting going. That is, as a device to stop brawls breaking out among young testosterone-raddled troops over women, when group cohesion was vital.

    But my wife is a bit of an Islamic scholar, and she spotted the problem with the hypothesis straight away: there is no Islamic society on Earth where inter-tribal and intra-tribal warfare has not been a major factor in its history, if not endemic. Those cultures have long histories of violence. So one will not find an unveiled peaceful tribe to compare with tribes dominated by warriors where the women are all veiled. But none the less, I like the hunch.

    And I don’t think the spelling of ‘burka’ or ‘burqa’ does it justice. I favour ‘bourker’, after the town of Bourke in western NSW. Because it must be as hot as bloody Bourke under a black bourker in summer, and just about everywhere in the Muslim world. Note also that ‘bourker’ should not be confused with ‘burger’, even though any woman unfortunate enough to be forced to wear the thing might liken herself to a lump of flattened mincemeat straight off the skillet. With the lot.

  23. Ian
    the anti-burqa arguments I have seen and heard seem to fall into three categories:
    1. It is against our enlightened feminist principles.
    2. Religion is bad. Islam is a religion and therefore bad. The burqa is a religious trapping and therefore bad.
    3. Islam is the baddest religion of all and therefore etc etc.

    re: 1. As Jacinda points out in a comment response, women who wear the burqa in Australia tend to do so out of choice. As its the 21st century last time I looked (though one could be forgiven for thinking that it was still the middle ages sometimes)one would hope that we are past the stage of telling women what they can and can’t wear.

    2. No-one would disagree that religions have produced some serious nutjobs. Or that serious nutjobs have found in religions a place to thrive. However, (as I mentioned earlier) as nearly everyone who has ever lived has been religious, perhaps abandoning religious thinking as an outmoded relic of a barbaric past has more than a whiff of end-of-history triumphalism about it. And its also true that there have been some extraordinary religious practitioners, who appear to have been admirable human beings.

    3. I would imagine that within Islam, as within other religions, there are many competing discourses, and that it is not a unified monolithic thing.

    The current hysteria against the burqa seems to me to have more than a touch of the paranoid about it. These are ordinary women choosing to dress in a particular way, but our paranoid thinking immediately projects them to be potential criminals and terrorists, and our response to that to strip them naked. Just as when faced with traumatised refugees in leaking boats, our immediate response is to see them as a threat to our safety.

  24. Stephen,

    To deal with your points in reverse order: there are minor peaceful sects within Islam such as the Sufis. But the mainstream is split into Sunni and Shia, and the split goes back nearly all the way to the lifetime of Muhammad. It is hard to tell which of the two is worst, but the conflict is murderous, and on a near-daily basis.

    If the aforementioned hunch of mine is right as to the origin of the bourker, it as as excellent an example as one could wish for of that famous aphorism of Marx: the past rests like a dead hand upon the present. Long past the time any rationale for it has past, the thing goes on.

    There is no ‘hysteria’ against the bourker. There have been some questions raised as to whether or not it should be banned, and rational arguments given. I don’t find much in Barnardi’s case to recommend it.

    But clearly, a few more robberies carried out by bourker-wearing men will seal its fate. It will become increasingly difficult for any Muslim woman to wear one in public, whether voluntarily or not.

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