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People & Ideas

Jul 6, 2011

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.

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51 comments

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51 thoughts on “The burqa has become an symbol of unnecessary fear

  1. Liz45

    Well said, Shakira! The misognyists have had a field day over this issue; not to mention the racists? Good on you! Where was the outrage when our Government remained silent over president Karzai allowing the Legislation to pass that makes it OK for an Afghani man to rape his wife? or the horrific crimes of violence being committed against women and girls in Afghanistan? Why are we there again? Oh yes, to bring peace and democracy to that country! Not for women and children though!

  2. Lorry

    The full face veil has no place in this society – don’t like it – then time to find another society. I understand where France and other european countries are coming from on this issue – for once, why don’t we do the same before the problem is out of control – that may require Juliar being strategic for once.

  3. Bob the builder

    I don’t like lycra shorts. Could I have them banned too?
    And I don’t think vanilla ice blocks have any place in this society. Ban them now!

  4. ianjohnno1

    In Australian culture, where many consider it rude not to doff one’s shades (remove sunglasses to expose the eyes) in many situations, face coverering other than for health and safety reasons is an insult. IMHO.

  5. Bob the builder

    I’ve never noticed this apparent Australian custom of removing sunglasses amongst my compatriots – perhaps we should have a code of allowable behaviour and make anything else illegal. They do that in Saudi Arabia I believe and apparently in works fantastically well there.
    Maybe crikey can run a competition for “behaviours to ban”?
    My first item to ban would be “not listening properly when you’ve asked a question”. Very offensive and very unAustralian!

  6. william magnusson

    hasnt fashion come the full circle since ban the bikini in the 60s. remember that. people being dragged off the beach for not having enough clothing on, now it seems when women do cover up its gets people angry as well. personally if i was female the burqa would be a godsend so to say , just imagine if i was late getting out of bed and had to duck down to the shop… you beauty, throw on the burqa , dont have to worry about doing my hair , putting on a face or even cleaning the teeth . no one s going to know hey!!!… ok if i get done speeding i just have to lift the veil for the officer and bat my eyes !!!

  7. Perry Gretton

    I have no problem with someone wearing a burqa in normal daily activity, just as I don’t mind a charity worker dressing as a polar bear. However, where identification is important, the face needs to be revealed, which is why, for example, we’re not allowed to enter a bank wearing a motorbike helmet.

  8. BlackIvory

    Her history of traffic infringements and non-payment of fines points to this being a problem related to the woman herself rather than any face covering she wears.

  9. mikeb

    The analogy of comparing a burqa with a ski-mask is a bit silly. We would all be rightly alarmed if it became common practice for men (or women) to start wearing a ski mask in public for no practical reason. It would be most suspicious (masturbator or not) as in western society it is considered rather rude to cover your face and so you would not do it normally. The problem with Carmelita Matthews was that she used the race card to get out of a legitimate driving offence. If not for the camera I’m sure the police officer would have been pilloried as a misogynist racist and possibly stood down to pacify outrage in the Muslim community. His career may well have been ruined. Fortunately he was completely exonerated nevertheless Matthews escaped conviction because of her burqa obscuring identification. I’d have said that despite escaping this time she’s kicked an own goal on behalf of Muslim women everywhere. I hope her community is suitably disgusted and lets her know about it.

  10. Flower

    “The problematic aspect of the man’s outfit was not the ski-mask, after all – it was his unzipped fly and lowered daks.”

    So if a flasher is wearing a ski-mask to avoid being identified, you can assist the constabulary by giving a description of his genitalia?

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