[Please insert a string of expletives of your choice as the opening sentence of this article.]

Again? Muslim women and religious dress in the headlines again? With another Liberal Prime Minister feeling the need to go on the record to say that he finds face-veiling “confronting”?

And Speaker Bronwyn Bishop — the woman who described the hijab as “an iconic emblem of defiance” when calling for it to be banned in state schools — has asked ASIO and the federal police for an independent security assessment of the hazard that face-veiled women may pose to Parliament House? The appearance of her name in news reports about Muslim women elicits another string of expletives.

My own security assessment on burqas and niqabs in Parliament House is that in a building where all guests must pass through metal detectors upon entry, facial identification is beside the point. However, in circumstances where this was regarded as necessary, women wearing niqab would have no religious objection to removing their face-veil to one of the building’s many female security officers. Security procedures at airports already deal with face coverings, after all. Australian schoolchildren are taken on subsidised trips to Canberra in order to see the national Parliament — why should any Australian citizen be denied access to the same experience?

Or foreign citizen, for that matter. My personal impression during the years that I lived in Canberra was that women wearing face-veil were few and far between but that some such women that I did encounter were the wives of foreign diplomats. Canberra is a boring bloody posting. You’d probably find time for a trip to Parliament House during your time there. It’s hardly diplomatic to tell such women that they aren’t allowed in and perhaps they’d prefer the delights of tea and scones at Cockington Green instead.

Last year, Mehreen Faruqi was appointed to the New South Wales upper house to replace Greens member Cate Faehrmann. Faruqi is first Muslim woman appointed to any Australian parliament. So far as the prospect of a niqab-wearing Australian MP is concerned, the words “snowflake’s chance in hell” spring to mind. This latest blast of the dog-whistle will leave a broad range of Muslim women feeling less politically engaged, no matter what they wear or don’t wear on their heads and regardless of whether or not they have any desire to set foot in Parliament House. As a token gesture for those like Senator Cory Bernardi — who favours an outright ban in public spaces — it comes at a heavy cost to relations with Muslim communities.

The Prime Minister’s remarks in themselves have had a deeper impact on Muslim women’s lives — including the lives of those who don’t wear niqab but are visibly Muslim in other ways — than any ban would be likely to inflict. Muslim women already speak of being fearful to access public space after a string of attacks upon them and their co-religionists ranging from verbal abuse to physical assault. Racial hatred is its own form of terrorism, and comments like those from Bernardi, PUP Senator Jacqui Lambie and now Tony Abbott, provide it with legitimacy.

Nice one, Team Australia.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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