Pauline Hanson's burqa ban stunt: The historical context

By | | comments |
(Image via Tansy George / Facebook)

Banning dress deemed oppressive, offensive and generally against the run of fair play in a society’s rhythm is far from new. 

It all lies in the symbolism, always more than the practice and, in most instances, more than the substance. Last week’s act by Senator Pauline Hanson in Australia’s Parliament to swan into the Senate chamber with a hovercraft’s breeze, wearing the burqa, only to then dash it off before asking a question of the Attorney General, were not as shocking as it might have been. The times, in short, are ripe. 

“Many Australians,” she prefaced her cul-de-sac query to Senator George Brandis, “are much in fear of it.”  Would the Attorney-General therefore consider banning it in Australia? 

No, Brandis defiantly shot back, he would not. 

“I would caution and counsel you with respect to be very, very careful of the offence you may do to the religious sensibilities of other Australians.” 

To mock members of the Muslim community would alienate them in ways that would stifle, rather than advance, the case for security. 

“And to ridicule that community, to drive it into a corner, to mock its religious garments is an appalling thing to do and I would ask you to reflect on what you have done.”

The heavy-handed policy response of targeting groups because of religion, including such outward manifestations as dress, is hardly specific to the Hanson brand label. Other countries, many Islamic, tussle with the point, suggesting a debate shot through with political and cultural connotations.  

Across Europe, the banning sentiment is warming and, in some cases, boiling with feverish intensity. All of this merely adds to Hanson’s folio of arguments, despite the often sensible remarks that Europe’s more rigid social structures lend it less room to move when it comes to such influences.

In May, the Austrian Parliament enacted legislation to come into effect in October banning the burqa and niqab, fining women wearing full face veils to the nasty tune of €150 on public transport, at courts and in universities.

The measure had a certain degree of right-wing propulsion from the far right FPÖ faction, who thought the move insufficiently harsh.

But it was France, long militant in drumming its enlightenment credentials, that took the legislative lead in the first place, insisting on limits on clothing deemed signs of religious significance. (Only Belgium can claim to have kept up in this pioneering role.) In April 2011, Prime Minister François Fillon issued a decree banning women from wearing the niqab in public places. Exceptions were few: at a place of worship or travelling as a passenger in a car.

Europe’s legal institutions have also added their share of approval, giving it their coating of measured reasoning. Balance, claimed the wizened judges, is all important and having such garbs is disruptive. The European Court of Human Rights validated France’s burqa ban in July 2014, acknowledging that the interference with certain rights under the human rights charter was justified to protect the “rights and freedoms of others” in the legitimate policy of making people live together.

In March 2017, the European Court of Justice added the icing on the cake for those happy with such injunctions, claiming that employers might well prevent staff from wearing visible religious symbols. That case concerned Muslim women from France and Belgium who had submitted complaints claiming that they had been discriminated against at work for being asked to remove their veils.

Across the Channel, a debate has also raged, though the banning lobby has yet to get its way. In February, UK Prime Minister Theresa May resisted the move to do so, despite noisy calls from the UK Independence Party, which has made a burqa ban part of its manifesto pledge. In August 2016, a YouGov poll found 57 per cent of respondents favouring the UKIP position.

The argument on such dress and its oppressive credentials is often reversed, suggesting that banning such wear is itself oppressive, the tyrant’s irrepressible itch to remove choice from the equation. 

“It’s a terrific thing about Australia,” claims the Australian Muslim Women’s Association President Silma Ihram, “that it doesn’t force people to assimilate, but it recognises their cultural diversity.” 

For Ihram, Hanson’s burqa pantomime showed callousness and a good deal of insensitivity:

“I think it is terrible timing, especially considering what’s been playing out in the U.S. at the moment.” 

In truth, Hanson’s behaviour may show a crude political savvy, capitalising on movements in numerous countries.

Hanson’s gesture was pure Trumpland theatre, and far from terribly timed. It was provocative, aggressive and, at first blush, daft. But was it? Cashing in on the cash cow of intolerance is something the Senator has been tyring to do for years and the climate is even better now to reap ill-gotten gains. For Hanson, the bug bear of Asian immigration in the 1990s has been replaced by the dangers of the aspiring Caliphate, lurking behind the next murderous van, the next slashing knife.

Further to the point, such acts advance the understandable feeling that edginess of this sort is fundamental to the Hanson playbook. The other tricks in her repertoire were already purloined by Australian prime ministers – John Howard and Tony Abbott – keen to neutralise the gains of any populist juggernaut. 

Hansonism is replete in the legislation and policy apparatus towards refugees and asylum seekers. It underlies the fears, most notably expressed by Abbott, that Christian Syrian refugees were a far better proposition than Muslim ones. How easy it is to condemn her, when such actions strike the chord of so many in Parliament who would genuinely wish for a ban to go ahead.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

Monthly Donation


Single Donation


Have integrity. Subscribe to IA.

Recent articles by Binoy Kampmark
Albanese questions pointless legal action against Assange

While the PM continues to voice his support for Julian Assange, some are concerned ...  
Football takes centre stage as World Cup protests fizzle

Human rights protests at the FIFA Qatar World Cup were a weak affair as focus was ...  
The secret wars of the U.S. imperium

The U.S. imperium, that most awesome of devilish powers, has tentacled itself ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate