Words by Rana Al-Shibly
Prime Minister, Tony Abbott called them “confronting”; Liberal Senator, Cory Bernardi called them “un-Australian”; and Speaker of the House, Browyn Bishop called them “iconic items of defiance.”
The debate on the “banning of the burqa” is nothing new. For years, politicians around the world have argued for its ban on the basis of national security. Indeed in 2010, France successfully banned all facial coverings, including the burqa and niqab, from public places.
But why has this issue suddenly re-emerged in Australia?
In late September, Senate President Stephen Perry and Speaker of the House Browyn Bishop announced an interim measure banning all facial coverings inside of Parliament house. Women wearing Islamic veils who wished to visit the Government building, would be forced to sit in a glass enclosure – a room normally reserved for noisy school children.
Whilst the Prime Minister quickly stepped in to formally request the “management measure” be removed, it was not enough to quell the public outrage.
Firstly, it is worth noting that the very foundations of this campaign are wrong. Whilst a burqa is a type of veil worn in Afghanistan, whereby the face is covered by a form of mesh netting, the Islamic veil most commonly referred to in the media as “a burqa” is actually known as a niqab.
Whether this mix up proves the ignorance of the campaign, or that those running it simply love a good alliteration, we don’t know. What is clear however, is that whichever term is used, the effects of the campaign will be just as divisive and dangerous.
Politicians argue that the burqa, and other religious facial coverings, are national security issues. In a press conference, Palmer United Party Senator Jacquie Lambie, a vocal supporter of the campaign, stated that “it is like a motorbike helmet, it is like a balaclava. I will not allow you to wear that into my office because it is a security risk.”
But representatives of the NSW Muslim Legal Network argue that the campaign is “very dangerous, hurtful, divisive and inflammatory” and that it will only fuel the aims of extremist groups such as Islamic State (IS). Not only does the campaign allow for IS to imbed an ideology in the minds of young Islamic Australians that they do not belong in the country, it also furthers the belief within the wider community that Islam is averse to the Australian way of life.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie agreed, labelling it “religious apartheid.”
Indeed, Islamic organisations in Australia say, since the move to ban facial coverings, there have been over 30 religiously motivated attacks, most of them on women wearing the hijab.
This claim has been supported by ABC journalist, Sarah Sedghi, who in a report for AM found that many Islamic women have been verbally abused on trains and in local parks, been labelled as ‘terrorists’, or even had their veils ripped off by complete strangers on the street.
However there does seem to be a silver lining. Some Muslim women say that this latest attempt has pushed the issue into the spotlight, attracting mainstream media attention. And this, according to Kathyrn Jones, is in turn creating some positive conversation.
“I’m used to being stared at because of how I’m dressed,” Mrs Jones told News.com. “Now people are starting to smile and say hello. It’s almost like they are trying to say they don’t agree with what is being said [in Parliament].”
Clearly, the wearing of an Islamic veil has divided the Australian community and looks set to be a controversial topic for some time. The actions by some of our politicians have done nothing but fuel, and give legitimacy to, the rampant Islamophobia within Australian society today.