Yesterday, Australia reached a new and disgraceful low when Parliament’s presiding officers enacted new rules that would force Muslim women in a burqa or niqab to sit in glass enclosures segregated from the public gallery if they visit the “people’s house” in Canberra.

I am Australia’s first female Muslim MP, elected just last year. I have lived in Australia for 23 years, but I have never felt more targeted and disparaged for my cultural and religious background. I am one out of more than 800 parliamentarians across Australia — my colleagues are mostly white, mostly Christian, mostly male.

Let’s call a spade a spade and not pretend that these discriminatory rules have anything to do with improving security, but everything to do with conservative politicians pushing their bigoted agendas, and feeding fear and prejudice in some parts of society.

Revealingly, the politicians who have been urging for a ban on “face coverings” in Parliament are the very same who for some time have been calling for its public banning because they are “confronted” by it or unwilling to accept, let alone welcome, religious and cultural differences in society.

Arguments for the public banning of the niqab and burqa include liberating Muslim women from oppression and, in Reverend Fred Nile’s words, allowing them to “enjoy the liberties and freedoms of an open Australian society”. But how is forcing a woman to not wear a piece of clothing any different from forcing her to wear one? Both take away her right to freedom of choice.

Women in Australia are already second-class citizens. We face inequality and discrimination in the workplace, in law and in decision-making. The gender pay gap is on the rise, domestic violence is increasing, and we’ve gone backwards in parliamentary representation. I sit in the New South Wales Parliament, where only a quarter of the MPs are women.

Moreover, our parliaments are not at all representative of the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of contemporary Australian society.

But rather than addressing these very real problems of closing the gap of inequality and working towards achieving wider representation, our political leaders are creating further discrimination based on how women dress or what their religious beliefs are.

If, as a society, we are concerned about women being oppressed, then let’s stop penalising women further. Treating Muslim women as threatening and foreign not only creates divisions in our multicultural community, but also further alienates us from being part of society and participating in decision-making.

Muslim women in Australia now contribute to our society in more ways than ever before. Why should we be relegated to glass cabinets when we are more than capable of breaking the glass ceiling?

The “burqa ban” fiasco may seem trivial or distracting on the surface, but it is incredibly revealing of what the political class think of who is on so-called Team Australia, and who is not.

This must change. Now is the perfect opportunity to channel the overwhelming community rejection of the proposed rules into a renewed effort to make Australia a more equal society that is open to all.

Peter Fray

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