A fresh spate of public debate on whether the burqah should be banned, both nationally and internationally, has been sparked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. As a Muslim woman and just as a member of society it got me wondering — what’s really at stake here?

Last month Sarkozy began a gallant bid to restore the feminist movement — a cause clearly close to his heart — and ban the wearing of the burqah, which he claims is “a problem of liberty and women’s dignity”. In his own words, the burqah is apparently not a religious symbol, but a sign of enslavement and subservience.

Naturally, to restore a women’s dignity and give ‘er back her rights you must tell her what she can’t wear. Makes perfect sense. Perhaps if you’re the French first lady and prefer wearing nothing at all, banning the burqah would be a convenient way to dodge one more item of clothing.

Let’s not fall for the whole “liberation of women” veil in which Sarkozy shrouds his attack. How many women in France actually wear a burqah for the issue to be so high on the President’s agenda? Not many at all — so few in fact, that as one journalist pointed out, none could be found to be interviewed by a BBC correspondent on the issue.

Appearing sympathetic to the rights of the subjugated and liberating these women of their veil — which appear to pose an implicit threat to the President’s right-wing sensibilities — is obviously part of his political agenda, a cheap way to win some votes. God knows women have been held hostage for a few votes before — shortly after invading Afghanistan, Bush boldly declared in his 2002 State of the Union address “Today women are free”. The liberation of Afghan women was a huge justification for America’s invasion of the country.

When calling for an outright ban of the burqah, the argument ceases to be about gender equality and shifts to an aggressive violation of human rights clouded by an air of xenophobia. Stripped down to its core, the act of imposing a ban on the burqah to liberate women is no more enlightened than the views held in the very patriarchal societies being condemned. Ironically, both approaches lead to the same end point — women subjugated to the will of others, regardless of whether the end result is a silhouette of a woman clad in a heavy burqah, or that of a woman stripped of her right to choose.

Often we’re presented with the supposed flip side to the argument — we don’t see women in Saudi frolicking around in a bikini, so why should Muslim women in the West be allowed to cover? There are some fundamental differences between the two societies, the most obvious being that the West prides itself on being founded on a democratic basis — it’s issues like this that put this ideological concept to the test. Furthermore, forcing women to wear a burqah/niqab in countries like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan is not Islamically correct — it is not a universally accepted true expression of Shariah, so we should hardly be looking to those regimes for guidance or to draw parallels.

The argument continues to unfold domestically. Canberra based journalist Virginia Haussegger wrote a piece for the Canberra Times, crying out to “ban the unAustralian Burka”. This generated a huge response on talkback radio and in letters to the editor, manifesting into a public debate hosted by the ANU on Wednesday the 15th of July. Virginia, with her pro-ban stance, sat on a panel with Dr Shakira Hussein and Julie Posetti, both against the imposition of a ban on the burqah.

Animated discussion took place in front of a capacity crowd of 380-plus journalists and members of the public, and was followed avidly on Twitter (#burkaban), with many more lined up outside the University lecture theater. The audience seemed to be split between those backing Virginia’s very emotive stance — strongly for not allowing the burqah to be seen in public in Australia, conveniently failing to address what steps would be taken to put this theory into practice — and those backing Shakira and Julie’s position, which highlighted the issues surrounding an individuals’ right to choose.

Both Shakira and Julie made a point to highlight the complex social and political implications of enforcing a ban in Australia. When challenged by an audience member to explain the dichotomy that exists in enforcing liberation, Virginia was somewhat vague in supplying a substantive answer. By the end of the debate, there seemed to be only a recognition that more discussion was required to address the marginalising effects on the community triggered by calling for a ban, let alone imposing one.

The debate has managed to stir copious amounts of public interest nationally, but it is important to note the added twist to the Australian debate. Whereas overseas calls for the ban have been coming from xenophobic right-wing Governments, which is not so surprising, this stance in Australia coming from Virginia, a so-called progressive feminist, adds another dimension to the argument. A dimension which makes for a more dire domestic situation where the mainstream grows increasingly xenophobic, using the opinions of a liberal feminist to justify their position.

By advocating the imposition of a ban, Virginia is unwittingly furthering the notion of censoring women. If a ban on the “unAustralian” burqah were to be accepted, women who choose to wear one will be further alienated from society. I am quite certain that these women would not tear off their burqahs and declare their newly found “liberation” to the world. In fact, they would retreat even further, preferring not to leave their house, rather than to leave behind their burqah and their beliefs, as right or wrong as their beliefs may seem to us. Now is that really what a progressive, liberal feminist would want for her fellow sisters?

We need to remove the nonsensical façade of empowering women by imposing a ban on burqahs and face the real pressing question at the heart of the debate: which of us would like to live in a police state where our fundamental right to choose is taken away? If you ask me, that’s pretty “unAustralian”.