The wearing of head coverings and veils by women of the Islamic faith has been a political issue in Australia this year, literally a material manifestation of fear, racism and right wing politics that unfairly targets women. I am not Muslim so I will not speak for the women in the many, diverse Islamic cultures represented in Australia – I will leave that to them – but I do have a few observations from where I am sitting.
My first real awareness of the western world’s tendency to tell (and legislate against) Muslim women’s choice of apparel happened in France. I was there at the height of the political movement that sought to ban head coverings and veils that has since captured most of Europe, the US and now Australia. This was a paradox given the reputation of the French for human rights and freedom. Many women the world over hold feminist views and believe they are supporting Muslim women but concerns about head coverings are only about Muslim women not all the other types of head coverings present in all cultures. All over the world, men and women have accepted the idea that women are forced to wear such clothing and are subjected to varying degrees of subjugation and domestic violence. There is no doubt sometimes this is true but is far from universal and no different to any society. We know this from Muslim women themselves (To Veil or not to Veil). In the cases where abuse is a problem, it is a domestic violence issue not a clothing issue and should be dealt with accordingly. Muslim women are able to represent themselves and perhaps our obligation is to respect and support them rather than speak for them.
These views on QandA
The other event which has stuck in my mind is before and after the fall of the Twin Towers. In my suburb before this tragedy, veiled women walked the streets with their children, went shopping, went to the park and headed to wherever they were going. Afterwards, they disappeared. I assumed these women preferred to stay at home where it was safe and they would not be subjected to blame and racism.
The third event was the banning of the “burqa” in parliament by the Australian government, relegating any woman wearing the offending clothing to sit behind glass with school children to protect the parliament from disruption or violence. At the same time, the Prime Minister acknowledged he found this form of dress confronting oblivious to how many Australians find images of the Prime Minister in a variety of sporting attire equally confronting.
In my view, a true feminist approach means allowing women a choice of what they wear. Just as wearing little clothing is not an excuse for rape, wearing a lot is not an excuse for racism – and yes even Tony Abbott can wear his budgie smugglers. Perhaps western societies should instead pay attention to the restrictions they place on all women and let women dress how they would like. The “Lady strips bare” tells how Tracey Spicer has been forced to dress throughout her television career.