Friday, June 04, 2010

Burqas in person

This isn't a post about what's wrong with burqas. Nor is it a post about what's wrong with not liking them. It's just a post about what they made me think about.

I made my position on the proposal to ban the wearing of burqas clear a while ago. Since then, I've been in a situation where some women were wearing them. We were at a very busy play centre on a wet day, so it felt like the entire population of the earth was there at some stage, and it probably isn't surprising that it included some women in burqas.

And wow aren't they confronting.

After I got past the gratuitous "why would you choose to wear that?" reaction, I started to think about what this said about me and my culture. Why did I have such a strong reaction? It isn't just because these women clearly hold different priorities and beliefs to me. A hijab doesn't induce the same response, nor does a nun's habit or a Buddhist's robes. (These do all induce some reaction in me, just not on the level of a burqa.)

It's obviously all about not being able to see their faces. In Australia, we just don't cover our faces for any other legitimate reason. It's not like we have a need to wear ski masks. We expect motorbike riders to remove helmets as soon as they get off their bikes. So traditionally, the only people who cover their faces are doing it for dodgy reasons. So if someone is covering their face there is this kinda automatic response that they can't be trusted.

Add to that all the non-verbal communication from people's faces that we routinely use to give us a vague reading on their moods and so on, and it doesn't exactly take a lot of navel gazing to get why lots of Australians* find burqas discomfiting. It's a new concept in our culture that people would cover their faces for legitimate reasons, and new cultural concepts are always hard to digest. In this case, however, there's this really easy way to get around the discomfort whilst feeling morally superior - it's not that we find the garment confronting, it's that we object to the oppression of women that the burqa represents. And what's even better, is that we do, in fact, object to the oppression that the burqa can represent, so there's no need to consider that we might just be struggling to replace a cultural default.

And if you think I've missed the mark by a million miles here, consider what the reaction would be if some politician decided to ban stilettos. There's no doubt that they have been used to objectify, oppress, and even cripple women. There are women who feel they are required to wear them to meet some male imposed standard. I look at stilettos and think "why would you choose to wear that?". And yet the outcry would be enormous, and rightly so, because not all women share my opinion. Some wear them for all the opposite reasons - that they feel good, and empowered in them - and who the hell am I to argue with them? But stilettos don't upset any cultural norms, so we've never gone looking for the justifications to ban them.

*And no doubt other cultures too, I'm just sticking with what I know.


  1. Ariane, I'm finding your post very interesting to think about, but

    and it doesn't exactly take a lot of navel gazing to get why lots of Australians*

    is making me uncomfortable because I thought your asterisk would be something like a clarification, because, you know, some of us are Australian and aren't Muslim but don't find burqas a new concept in 'our' culture. Instead it was just a reminder that 'our' Australian culture is all Euro-Anglo-exclusionary. :o(

  2. I'm sorry, this is sort of thing is always going to come up when you try to talk about how things work in a country with diverse cultures which intermingle or remain separate to varying degrees. What I even mean by "my culture" is a post all by itself, but I don't see my culture as normative, definitive or something that I own or belong to, it's just something around me. For the record, I don't think someone is more or less "Australian" based on how much they subscribe to or identify with this thing I refer to as Australian culture. However, by my own argument, that doesn't mean that the same culture doesn't do exactly that, and that's what I was neglecting to consider.

    I was using "lots of Australians" and "our culture" as a shorthand for the people who hold what I see as a strong and prevalent view in Australia. I understand that throwing "our" around casually is exclusionary, and I apologise for that. I'll try to come up with better ways of expressing it.

  3. Thank you :o)

    I agree that it can be really hard, and really easy to use short hand to talk about some of these things. So I appreciate you at least thinking about it. :o)