Sexual skin – why I hate the burqa (and celebrate your right to wear it)

Plate 24 of 'Afghaunistan' by Lieutenant James Rattray

Australians believe in the dignity and freedom of each person, the equality of men and women and the rule of law. Australian citizenship is about living out these values in your everyday life.

So it is written on the third page of ‘Australian Citizenship – Our Common Bond’. The word ‘value’ and its plural reappear another 16 times in a context reflecting social ideologies, such as;

We value this mutual respect for the dignity of all people.

and

Migrants have chosen to come to Australia and to share our common set of values.

Personally, I happen to share those values identified in the book, including a belief in those more ocker concepts like the giving of ‘a fair go’ and standing up for your ‘mate’. I presume since this book forms the background reading material for all prospective citizens, I’d be hard pressed to find a fellow true-blue, dinkum di Aussie who didn’t.

Yet like all of my fellow countrymen, I bring my own baggage of meanings, exceptions and biases to those concepts. For example, is my mate only the closest of friends? No doubt. Neighbours who I rarely speak to? Complete strangers? Should I help a so-called ‘boat person’ out as I would a mate? I probably would, although I know quite a few who wouldn’t.

Could I say I believed in our shared belief in the freedom of speech in light of the government’s plans to filter the internet for me? Given it’s a national value, according to the guide for applicant citizens, I must!

And what of good old, Australian family values? If my household constitutes my wife, her girlfriend and my secondary partner (with adopted kid), is it still technically the same family most of my fellow citizens would celebrate? Umm…

It’s in this fine print that our bold values blur and fray at the edges, and we discover we don’t really have a set of clearly defined national values, but rather a rich tapestry of beliefs we rarely pay closer attention to. The illusion is solid enough – we can even use bold words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as if they are universal qualities we all embrace without thought of context. Scratch the surface and it’s apparent that these values only go so far before we start to find exceptions.

Our country is not alone in this sentiment. In June, 2009, the French prime minister Nicola Sarcozy spoke of the wearing of a burqa; “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” More recently, on July 13 2010, the French National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill that would permit the few women in the country who wore the burqa or niqab to be fined or sent to citizenship classes. The very nation that gave us the word ‘liberty’ has found a way to take it away while appearing as if they were enforcing it.

It seems rather perplexing that the way to free a ‘prisoner’ is to fine them. It is presented as a conflict of their national value for freedom – veiled women are described as being prisoners behind a wall of cloth. There are cries of oppression at the hands of men and accusations of a power imbalance that needs to be rectified.

In a world where terrorism has replaced the atomic bomb as the ever-present threat, the threat posed by a hidden identity is the next line of reasoning to be presented. Never mind that the law is not restricted to identity checks at airports. Never mind that any other citizen might be permitted to wear surgical masks or motorcycle helmets where a burqa would break the law.

Personally, I could not care less if any person wished to wear a mask of cloth to hide their features, should they choose to do so. Replacing one alleged form of oppression with another is worthy of Wonderland politics as far as I’m concerned. Yet there is a deeper set of values that troubles me, one that gives rise to the desire to hide one’s face from view. And it is a value that sadly many Australians would feel quite comfortable with, albeit within a subtly different context.

The modern incarnation of the veil is deeply linked with the Islamic concept of ‘namus’. To describe it merely as a sense of honour would not fully communicate the true depth of this term. It embraces modesty, respect and chastity, especially when it comes to women. The father or husband has a responsibility of defending his household’s namus at all costs. A woman’s self-respect and social standing is tightly bound to it.

It is within this context that the body is seen gratuitously as a sexual object. The visible flesh of a woman is taken as a sign of carnal desire, where men might be tempted to think impure thoughts, thus violating namus and bringing shame onto the household. While there is no doubt that there are men who would demand their female relatives hide their skin against their wishes, in the vast majority of cases it is a value embraced just as rigidly by the women who are raised to share this belief in the potency of the flesh.

Australian photographer Bill Henson knows all too well how a similar belief thrives amongst his fellow Australians. His images of a naked 13 year old girl created controversy when in May, 2008, members of the public complained to police, leading to the cancellation of his exhibition and the confiscation of the offending artwork. While the images were in no way depicting a sexual act and were permitted by the girl and her parents, the very fact the girl was sans-clothing was enough to offend the values of many and draw accusations of gratuitous paedophilia. The media erupted into a cacophony of opinions, both for and against.

In both cases, aspects the human form are put forward as sexual objects regardless of context. Displaying the breasts or lips must always be an act of seduction. Seeing a vulva must be an erotic affair, just as is seeing a jawline or a cheek. I find the very notion of the exposed body necessarily being sexual most offensive.

For such a reason I find the fundamental reasons many women choose to wear the burqa conflicts with my values, as does criticism of Bill Henson’s nude photography. However passing laws banning the burqa will do little to address this senseless belief in sexualised skin. Similarly I would oppose laws that would make it illegal for people to express their opinion about Henson’s art.

Values are important things. On first thought, we seem to share many of them as a national community. On deeper consideration there are finer points we find we disagree upon. They’re inherited from our social groups and slowly change as our community evolves. They are rarely absolute, and form complex hierarchies that depend on the situation and give rise to conflicts that can threaten to destabilise communities.

Values change when we tear into them and expose them to the light of day, testing them in different situations and critically evaluating the reaction. They won’t be changed by the letter of the law or at the muzzle of a gun, but rather through discussion and public debate and true freedom of speech.  Which if you’re ever going to emigrate to Australia, is apparently one of our national values.

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Published in: on July 19, 2010 at 11:22 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think that rights swing both ways. Just as a person (could be man, woman or child) has a right to wear what they want, others also have the right not to deal with that person.

    In a western context, the console operator in a service station or a bank teller has the right not to serve a person wearing a full face motorcycle helmet. If my beliefs are that I should know who I am speaking to, and to see their lips and eyes when they speak, then don’t I have the right not to speak to that person?

    So much of conversation is non-verbal, which is why some humour and sarcasm doesn’t work over the phone. Similarly it is really hard for a hearing impaired person (not necessarily fully deaf) to lip-read when their partner in conversation is veiled.

    What people do in private or in their own community groups is up to then, but when we deal with others there needs to be some give an take. Some people may require that shoes not be worn inside, but any tradesperson in Australia doing work in that house are likely to keep their steel-cap boots on. If the homeowner objects then they can keep shopping around until they find someone willing to break OH&S law, or to do the job themselves.

    Similar belief conflicts arise over headwear. In many western houses it is extremely rude for a man to wear a hat inside – just try wearing a baseball cap into an RSL, yet in other cultures a head covering should be worn.

    Which rule wins? So often it seems that non-western always trumps western which I don’t believe should be the case. ‘When in Rome’ comes to mind, and the burqa discussion falls into this. I would have to change my behaviour if I visited Saudi Arabia, and I would expect visitors to Australia to modify their behaviour. I had to change my behaviour when I moved here from NZ: in Australia it is swerve to avoid possums, in NZ it is swerve to hit them. If you expect your destination to be just like home, why go there?

  2. Great post.
    Here’s a similar article I read today with a feminist analysis of the French burka ban (it’s good, if you can get past the misspelling in the title).
    http://www.deeplyproblematic.com/2010/07/burka-ban-and-sarzoskys-sexist.html

  3. The same thing comes up frequently when breastfeeding older babies and children. There are many people who view the breast as a sexual object no matter what, and are disturbed by babies feeding even as young as 6 months. Forget about toddlers or preschoolers, that’s fair game for random strangers or close family and friends to tell women they are abusing their children or it’s ‘just not right.’

    It seems to have similar roots to the islamic traditions because it starts with portraying women as sex objects and locking them into that role.


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