Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Strange bedfellows

From this morning's Age:

Christian Democratic Party MP Fred Nile has succeeded in introducing a bill to ban the wearing of the burqa in the NSW Upper House.

Mr Nile introduced his private member's bill, seeking to ban the wearing of the burqa and other face veils in public, shortly after 8pm yesterday.

Last month, a debate on the same bill was voted down by the NSW Upper House.

Greens MP John Kaye said only the four Greens MPs and Family First MP Gordon Moyes voted against introducing the bill on Tuesday.

"Last month the coalition and the government did the right thing and said no, they would not allow the Upper House to be home to this kind of racist dog whistling," Mr Kaye said.

"This time they caved in."
The Greens and Family First, eh? Only the burqa could produce such a strange alliance, involving such very different reasons for making the same choice.

Last time the ban-the-burqa brigade was in the news, it was instructive and often entertaining to watch commenters on and offline scuttling and scrambling to adopt whatever they thought the correct line was, and being scuppered by the utter confusion into which the burqa debate will always throw those of us who'd place ourselves anywhere to the left of centre.

Only the libertarians, this time, knew exactly what they thought and said so. Feminists (including me, though for me the bottom line is always that women's rights trump cultural difference) grappled with this lose-lose question, for feminism is a broad church and the question, however vexed and vexatious, is clear: does one further restrict the rights of women by banning a garment oppressive to women, or does one exercise tolerance however repressive in the name of women's freedom to wear whatever they like? And does one continue to insist that the garment is oppressive when wearers of the burqa pop up and say Hello, excuse me, I'm doing this by choice?

And what, in the free west, is a feminist to do, if anything, about women complicit, usually unconsciously and usually for their own self-protection, in the furtherance of an oppressive ideology? Because Goddess knows this doesn't apply only to Moslem women, and indeed could as justifiably be applied to women of my mother's generation, assorted footy and cricket WAGS, and doting mums who are out buying Bonds' new bra for eight-year-olds. (And there, incidentally, go my favourite knickers; anyone want to join me in a Ban Bras for Babies Bonds boycott? What chance do you think we'd have of successfully introducing a bill to ban them?)

But those for whom unquestioning leftitude is a central plank of self-identification found themselves unable to discern what the correct line might be. The right-wingers went for the notion that the burqa is a threat to national security, which was, if I remember rightly, the issue that brought this question to public attention in the first place. Presumably hordes of Islamic terrorists could hide any number of bombs and guns under them and who knows, I suppose they could, though history has proved again and again that if you want to hide bombs and guns you don't need a burqa to do it. This case was strengthened by the opportunity for a little concern feminism, though that was clearly secondary, and I suppose it's a form of progress that wingnuts should feel some need to pretend to care about women's rights because Goddess knows they never used to.

But a certain kind of tribal left-winger, determined to take the correct line (and I actually saw a few people turning up on blog comments threads anxiously asking what the correct line was, so that they could take it), was torn in several different directions: reluctance to ban stuff; repulsion at a garment so oppressive to women; outrage at the racist dogwhistle in the 'national security' idea and the inherent ignorance behind the push to do this in Australia, unlike in France where there is a coherent and longstanding ideology behind it to do with the importance of maintaining a secular state.

And don't, she said sadly, underestimate the unacknowledged hostility of a certain kind of man, regardless of his political persuasions, to any kind of female appearance (up to and including not being acceptably hot) that seems to suggest that a woman is not desirable and available to him, even just for ogling. Next time you see a woman in any form of Islamic dress, even just a headscarf, being heckled in the street, listen closely to what is being said.

Because for some men, simply failing to conform to their porn-fed stereotype is enough to make them hate you.


Nigel said...

If the intent of the burqa (and to a lesser extent the veil) is to protect women from the rapaciousness of men's sexual attention, then the best way to fight them is for men to sexually harass every burqa-clad woman they they see.

Better to render the burqa useless than to give it an illicit glamour by banning it.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yes, well, me and my mushy feminist niceness are now grappling about whether to remove a comment advocating sexual harassment of any kind, however much made in jest.

Advice plz.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Also, considering what a serious issue this is, how interesting that the first comment should be flippant. A prize for the first person (including Nigel) who can identify whom Nigel means by 'them'.

Lucy Sussex said...

Having watched women in burquas, as they try to buy fruit wearing nylon gloves--well it wasn't easy for them. One plainly couldn't see properly, so flipped part of the veil back to reveal her glasses. How about a bill banning fetishizing of the female body? Now that would really cause trouble, not least in disrupting capitalism.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Lucy, precisely. One comment I saw during the last round of this burqa business has really stayed with me: the observation that non-gender-based political issues often get fought out on the site of women's bodies. The push to ban burqas isn't really about women at all.

Karen said...

Some jests are so far from being funny they are simply repugnant.
I'm guessing this unfunny Nigel is referring to burqas when he says "fight them".
But really, his two sentences could be easily refuted by a beginner Logic 101 student.

John said...

There is no love lost between Gordon Moyes and Fred Nile, and my guess is that Moyes voted against the bill simply to get at Nile, rather than on any thought-through principle.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Hm. If you're right, John, then that is indeed inglorious, but I have some sympathy for it even so. As a character in one of my favourite Amanda Cross novels says: 'Anything that son of a bitch is for, I'm against.'

Nigel said...

Yes, my comment was in jest, and by "them" I meant burqas, although I guess I might as well have meant "crazy religious extremists".

The mental image I had was of streets where women wearing regular ole clothes walk without comment, but the burqa-clad are subjected to "show us yer tits" style harassment. It would be burqa fail, and aimed at the men who insist that "their" women wear burqas, although obviously it would be no fun for the burqa-clad women, which is why it wasn't a serious suggestion. Nor is it practical - just absurd.

I don't support banning burqas. Live and let live, and banning them would likely be counterproductive.

lucytartan said...

I'm a feminist, not a libertarian (not much, or not generally) and I do know what I think: I'm against anybody making laws or rules about dress that single out women. Pretty much what Lucy said, really.

I think the state banning face-covering in Australia is a little bit less awful than the state or state-sponsored heavies enforcing it in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan - but not much less awful.

From what I've learned there is almost no incidence of Muslim women in this country being made to cover up by male relatives. I wasn't altogether surprised to learn that. The Spivak-esque narrative of the brown woman who must be saved (by whites) from the brown man is a whole lot more palatable for white western liberals than is the uncomfortable recognition of the things the burqa reveals about 'our' culture: women 'choose' to do all sorts of things to themselves that make their lives a little bit harder, or stupider, and an apparent precondition of participation in western society for women is being thoroughly and consumably visible. Women who opt out of this visibility, in whatever way, are always troublesome.

Mitzi G Burger said...

Thoughts on the French model: they insist on secularism as a sensible reaction to centuries of churchy decadence. Australia was not born out of the revolutionary blood-letting that made modern France. We are less suspicious of religion because it has less power over the party rooms of state control (so far). I think freedom of religion and feminism can co-exist, yet secular feminists have to make allowances for their religious sisters, both Muslim, Jewish and the rest: and simply continue to represent alternatives.

Nile and his banning the burqa bill should be blasted by the anti-discrimination act.

Helen said...

I'd be for sin binning Nigel for being a tool, but YMMV.

Now I have to go to bed and, damn it, you've made me visualise Fred Nile in bed. Ewwwwwww.

Anonymous said...

Moyes was first elected as a Christian Democrat, but left the party citing Nile's dictatorial style and strident anti-Islamic attitudes as his reasons.

As John says, there's no love lost between Moyes and Nile. However, IMO the indications suggest that Moyes is defending a principle that is important to him. After all, a good few Family First members (Moyes' current party) would side with Nile on this issue.


Anonymous said...

How soes one go about banning Fred Nile? oh, and don't forget George Pell - let's be completely ecumenical while we're at it.

If you ban the burqa, the women who wear them as a matter of conviction will not leave their homes - how is that good for anyone? We need these ladies (and their daughters!) to be out and about, seeing how everyone else lives. Give it a generation or two, and young women will make up their own minds. In our climate, who would want to walk around under a haystack of fabric?

Gae, in Callala Bay