Talk of banning the burqa is twisting some civil rights knickers again. This time in South Australia. What I find interesting is that people (on all sides of this debate) seem to think legislating against something that makes large groups of society uncomfortable is outrageously novel. But it happens all the time.
By law, I am ‘banned’ from walking the streets naked. Why? I work out at the gym, I have a healthy, moderate amount of body hair, owing to my Mediterranean background, and I promise I won’t do star jumps or anything.
But seriously, does nudity hurt anyone? Not really, but it does make a lot of people uncomfortable. The justification for the ‘nudey ban’ is predicated on the notion that most people don’t like people walking around naked. If I was what is known as a ‘naturist’, I should feel discriminated against (by the law) for not being allowed to express myself. The law says that in not wearing clothes, I would be committing ‘indecent exposure’ even if my reasons for nuding up were not indecent in any way.
There are laws that are introduced and enforced for no other reason than they ensure that a majority of people aren’t uncomfortable. The talk of banning burqas and similar types of dress is in the same vein. What’s that? It’s a security risk? Well, I don’t want to get into a big debate about risks and threats and such, but isn’t a central attribute of the creation of laws, criminal laws at least, to protect people against wrong that is done rather than wrong that could be done? I think it healthy to be suspicious of laws that ‘protect’ against possibilities rather than actualities. There are quite a few of them. These kinds of laws are especially prevalent here in Queensland. For example, bars and clubs are compelled by law to have ‘lock outs’ because there is a potential for drunken violence. Granted, the laws themselves were formulated in response to a ‘history’ of drunken violence, but what is wrong with just prosecuting perpetrators of such violence if and when they actually do it? Again, wrong that could be done is what is targeted rather than wrong that is done. The security concerns over burqas fall under this same kind of attitude and approach to lawmaking. But then, I am not convinced security is the primary motivation here.
The fact of the matter is many people in ‘the West’ are uncomfortable with women wearing burqas. I will admit that I am too. But I’m also uncomfortable with football hooligans, behatted, bebuckled, bebooted line dancers, and men who wear Ed Hardy shirts.
Those poor Ed Hardy shirt-wearers. They’re forced to adhere to a very backward interpretation of masculine identity, which inhibits their right to be all they can be. Please, if we were going to ban Ed Hardy shirts, let’s not pretend that we’re doing it because we care for the men who wear them!
Even if a majority of people shared my idiosyncratic discomforts, there is no justification for passing a law against those people and their sartorially tragic choices, much as I hate to say it. Their choice makes me uncomfortable, but so what? It does me no material harm. When it does do me some material harm, then we can talk about legislating against Ed Hardy shirts. Or burqas for that matter.
I am no friend to religious idiocy (be it patriarchal, homophobic, or indeed sartorial) and I don’t want to come off as an apologist, because I am certainly not. But it should at least be noted that this legislation is not just. This type of legislation is also not new.
The government has no business dictating to us what we can wear. It also has no business dictating to us that we must wear something. Thus, my haphazard and no doubt ineffectual rejoinder to discomfort legislators is to demand, like a drunken college boy playing Twister at a house party, that ‘Everybody get naked!’
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!