It was inevitable that Italy would start talking about a burqa ban sooner or later — indeed given that the country is run by a coalition of ex-fascists, quasi-fascists and paranoid nationalists, it’s surprising it didn’t happen years earlier.

The Northern League has proposed the law, which goes beyond most such laws in its punitiveness — promising a fine of up to €300, and/or a “community service” order to “promote integration” — yes I know, but let’s get to the obvious humour a bit later.

The proposed Italian law goes further, promising up to a year in prison for anyone who uses “physical or psychological” threats or violence to enforce burqa wear.

The law has the usual circularity — on the one hand the burqa is against our traditions etc etc, but as our traditions include freedom and equality, it has to be wrapped in a general law, banning all facial covering.

As the SMH columnist Elizabeth Farrelly wrote approvingly, in relation to a similar NSW law would cover everything from niqabs to plastic Reagan masks. So a whole range of activities has to be criminalised to preserve the illusions of liberal society.

That gutless sleight-of-hand process is typical of proposed niqab/burqa bans. It’s perfectly expressive of a Western culture that can’t assert its distinct identity — which has been worn away by decades of image/consumer capitalism — except by defining it against a minor other, which must be inflated to vast proportions in the process.

In this case, it’s a practice adopted by a few thousand women in each country, and with virtually no transmission beyond a few cultural groups.

That it’s the Northern League doing this is predictable and symbolic — for the Northern League is a cultural confection that’s equally expressive of the predicament of meaning that prompts such a response to the burqa in the first place.

The NL argues that northern Italy is a distinct place, with its own culture, that southern Italy is parasitic on it, etc. It was originally the Lombardy League, a locus with some genuine historical roots. But as such it could never win a decent brace of seats in the Italian parliament.

So, suddenly, it became the Northern League, and reverse engineered a whole realm — Pandania — as its homeland. It’s a politics founded on resentment, envy and an unwillingness to face the real challenges of hypermodernity.

In that it’s not alone. Fred Nile is just an owlish old media-attention junkie, of course, but what about the increasing tendency for professional/liberal feminists to sympathise with a ban?

Sushi Das, in The Age, argued that anyone who supported a woman’s right to wear what she wanted, even if it’s a medieval garment, was a cultural relativist. Farrelly engaged in an argument with a rally by Muslims who defended such garments as a response to the commodification of women’s s-xuality in images, etc, and cited the usual unnamed latteistas who wouldn’t denounce the burqa because that would be racist.

Farrelly’s point against the burqa-as-feminist was fair enough, but it would be great if at least once, feminists who want to use the state to tell other women what they can and can’t wear, would quote some actual “cultural relativist/latteista”, etc, defenders of the burqa.

In the absence of such, it’s fair to accuse them of lazy and unreflective thinking. What exactly is being objected to here? Is it the garment’s excessive covering? Why is that now offensive and its opposite — the bikini, which used to be banned in NSW — now acceptable? Is it the idea that women who want to wear it are being brainwashed? But how do you determine a free commitment to tradition, from a false choice, in these matters? That young girls are being raised in situations where they’re not offered choices for greater freedom of expression? But what about less visibly repressive cultures such as strict Christian sects or orthodox Jewish ones?

None of it adds up for the simple reason that the burqa ban is a mass displacement. Some of it is engineered, as a way of creating support for the Afghan war, but for nationalism, liberalism, and yes, some types of feminism, it serves as a way of avoiding a deeper confrontation with the degree to which their own projects have become stalled and increasingly irrelevant.

Peter Fray

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