Traditional Muslim dress has been a topic of social debate, but who is it really hurting? (Image via Pixabay)

Denmark has become the latest western country to ban the burqa. But this response is only making things worse, writes Judy Crozier.

I WAS ONCE a community worker on a small housing estate. There was one Muslim family where the father always drove the family van and the woman, when walking outside, was always completely covered, including mesh over the eyes. I found this confronting, but also amusing that it made my usual community worker’s big smile and expansive gestures of greeting fall a little flat. At least, I think it did. I couldn’t tell.

A number of other thoughts occurred to me: That the existence of the veil changes the way you interact with others outside of the home. That far from rendering this woman invisible, it made her all the more obvious — at least, in this community in urban Australia. Though perhaps there was some sense of security in this foreign place in being separated from it and its people by the veil. Of course, it made me wonder at such a degree of faith in a system of beliefs.

But I never assumed there to be more to my own attitude than that of coming across a very different culture. And it never crossed my mind that this woman’s veil should be banned.

Why should it? One thing I was very well aware of, after all, was that this woman was already vulnerable in a society that contrasts dramatically from the one she is used to, and that, in wearing this veil and however assertive she might be at home, she is demonstrating how wary she is of the world. Quod erat demonstrandum. She is vulnerable. Almost by definition, if you think of it, she is self-conscious. Why would I make that worse?

Yet this issue comes up again and again. European countries are beginning to ban the full veil. It’s hard to fathom why. Do they put the somewhat circular argument that these women are being “forced” to wear the veil and so “we” must force them not to? Isn’t the hypocrisy of this evident? Then there is the original assumption that they are being forced. Some may be, many are not. Many take it up in spite of families who are concerned that they will be marked for attack in our western societies. But in the end this veiling is about these women’s system of beliefs; that’s why they do it.

I wouldn’t wear it myself, but, hey, I defend to the death their right to do so. Really. When we rail against the veil, we are attacking a person's system of beliefs. Do we think we will change those beliefs by shouting, by making illegal what many think of as “modesty”?

There was a time when the Australian Speaker in the House of Representatives chose to ban fully-veiled women, or at least to relegate them to a small gallery separated from everyone. It was for security, she said. But, said a woman from the Muslim community, we are quite happy to comply with a female officer of the Parliament who asks for a peek. Problem? None.

Others argue that we adjust our garb when we visit their countries. Indeed, and I would hope so. Because, after all, this is about the system of beliefs that exists in some (by no means all) Muslim countries. And therein lies the difference. Walking down the middle of a street in something made of string would be deeply offensive; wearing sleeves and something on your head at least demonstrates an acknowledgement of their mores. The token matters here.

There are countries where fundamentalism is such that every woman does have to wear the full face-covering veil. I’m not sure that I would be willing to go there and do that. However, women who come from these countries are – I say it again – very evidently vulnerable, in the difference between our culture and one in which they have lived their entire lives — here I think we must use some empathy. The very fact of the veil indicates a deep self-consciousness which is not going to be improved by being forced out of it. I’ve said that before and it’s worth repeating. How does it help anything to turn a vulnerable and self-conscious person into a criminal?

In Australia and in countries of the world that have been built on migration, the first generation of new migrants tends to be conservative, reflecting the society left behind. The next generation is the one that assimilates. That’s how it happens. Subject of properly-controlled studies and everything. Truly. The other thing that happens, of course, is that new groups of migrants are hissed at and abused by those who have been in the country for more than one generation. That, might I remind everyone, is generally known as racism, unless you prefer the term xenophobia. Or bigotry, I hasten to add before someone decides to divert the issue by “pointing out” that religion is not race. Though, demographically speaking, I expect it feels much the same.

Xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners. It makes us react illogically. It makes us turn on the most vulnerable. It turns us into control freaks.

During that most absurd of public arguments about the burkini – the garment designed so that modest Muslim women could actually go to the beach – people only began to blink when it was pointed out that women and girls were being told they couldn’t wear on the beach what would be fine in the street. For quite some time, French people tried to ignore the fact that the burkini wasn’t even designed by a Muslim woman. It was designed by an Australian non-Muslim concerned that the desire to be modest was keeping Muslim women from enjoying the beach. Good lord. And to think I actually had an argument with a French man who was against the veil and the burkini because he wanted to look at attractive women. Yes, I myself certainly did feel patronised by this – was this really an argument I should take seriously? – while refraining from pointing out that his being gay added all sorts of dimensions to this that, well, at the very least, certainly all women were thus reduced to coat-hangers.

Have some respect. It’s not so hard. Our western societies are being confronted by the differing cultures of peoples migrating to those places that once colonised them. Cultures are different and will be so for a generation. Some influences will last; we’ll be, to some extent at least, multi-cultural. Not such a bad fate. It’s better than spitting at people who are different, tearing off their veils (often literally) and embittering that generation which should be undergoing a process of settling in, settling down, adding interest, adding life.

This is the conclusion I have arrived at. That our societies do not, even now, allow women to just be. Especially if they come from different cultures with, occasionally, slightly confronting customs. Even if no-one is hurt by that woman, over there at the bus stop with her shopping and kids, wearing a veil. Even if not one minute of your life is changed by it.

And consider this: In some communities (but not all) the wearing of full cover might indeed be at the demand of the men of that community. What might happen if the law declares women must not be fully covered? I suspect it means they won’t go out at all. Is this the result we are looking for?

Head for an art gallery sometime, be reminded that Victorian women outdoors were covered from head to toe, with gloves and often veils hanging from their bonnets. Ask your mother what women used to wear to church — hats and gloves. Things change, don’t they, when we talk about rights and not legalities.

In the meantime, I often wonder what possesses women who wear those ridiculous high and crippling heels. But I don’t urge their arrest. G-strings as beachwear are sometimes more weird than attractive. But hey, each to her own. I do roll my eyes, however, at the never-ending tendency of our society to comment on what any woman wears and to forget, entirely, who she is.

I’m not a control freak, after all.

The desire to control something you don’t understand is absolutely not the basis for an enlightened and happy society.

You’ll be burning witches next.

Judy Crozier writes fiction and some freelance non-fiction, and teaches creative writing in Melbourne.

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