The post 9/11 decade has been bookended by stories, from the burqa as a symbol of Taliban misogyny to the burqa as an unwanted intrusion into the West’s “Enlightenment culture”. “Veiled women” have long been represented as either helpless victims in need of rescue or as dangerous agents of an alien ideology in need of discipline.
If the Afghan women under the Taliban-imposed burqa fitted into the “rescue” narrative, then Carnita Matthews could have answered a Hollywood casting call for the role of veiled-woman-as-menace.
The footage of Matthews yelling accusations of racism at the policeman who was issuing her with an infringement notice and later leaving the courthouse flanked by bearded jubilant males after her conviction for making a false complaint was overturned has prompted Barry O’Farrell to announce legislation enabling the police to order the removal of face-coverings where a breach of the law is suspected.
In itself, this provision is not particularly contentious. Most of the major Muslim organisations, with the predictable exception of Hizb ut Tahrir, have indicated that such a measure would present no particular problem. And of course, Muslim-majority societies have also established procedures for verifying the identity of women who veil their faces.
The problem is not the procedure but the background noise against which it is being introduced, with calls from Cory Bernardi et al for European-style burqa bans and the disciplining of unruly Muslim women.
Of course, aggressive behaviour from someone whose face is concealed is an intimidating experience – but the intimidation is a product of the aggression, not of the face-covering. As teenagers, a female friend and I were stranded in a broken-down car at night while a man in a ski-mask m-sturbated in front of us. It was a terrifying experience that left us both badly shaken – but it never occurred to either of us to call for a ban on ski-masks. The problematic aspect of the man’s outfit was not the ski-mask, after all – it was his unzipped fly and lowered daks.
I don’t know if this man was ever apprehended – my friend and I were too shaken to report the incident. But if he had ever been brought to trial, it’s unlikely that he received more than the standard media coverage afforded your average suburban flasher. Carmelita Matthews, on the other hand, has been presented as a menace to society who merits front-page media coverage and legislative change.
Yet she did not wear her face-veil for the purpose of committing a crime and insofar as she and her phalanx of male supporters looked intimidating on the evening news – well, I doubt that tearing off Carmelita’s face-veil would have made them look any less scary. Anymore than the casting-off of burqas in and of itself signaled the end of patrichal oppression for women in Afghanistan.