The West should face off with itself on the Burka Ban
I have a travel tip for young women. There are places where a Burqa makes a lot of sense. Working in Lisbon in 1987 meant running a daily gauntlet of sexual harassment. So persistent was the abuse I ended up stashing food scraps in my bag to deflect men. Judging by the money thrust under my nose accompanied by flicking tongues being young, Western and alone on the streets was tantamount to being a prostitute.
It never occurred to me then to wear a Burqa. But if it did I would’ve stuck to my ‘feminist principles’. I had a right to walk the streets, any streets at any time, in a bikini if I saw fit. It was up to men to change their behaviour and I was not responsible for their failure to keep a civil tongue in their mouths.
When I returned to Melbourne I copped as much street level abuse only without the tongue gesticulating. Big trucks blasted their horns as I sat reading quietly in bus stops. Carloads of curb-cruisers bawled out, ‘show us your tits’. When I remonstrated with them I was warned, ‘you want a smack in the face as well!’
Nice. These peckerheads made agrophobia seem a sanctuary. Little did I know then that this invasive scrutiny would soon dissolve by the simple device of pushing a pram. A mother’s exile from cultural invisibility often coincides with that baffling hinterland of femininity, from 40-ish years, when all that wearisome street surveillance slips behind an unarticulated veil.
Did I mention the veil and Western women’s public visibility in the same breath? Surely not. Women of the West have been ‘reclaiming the night’ through rallies and rape reform for generations. Unchaperoned street presence meant liberation in the late-nineteenth century. The pinnacle of dress reform was wearing a bikini and a tampon while prancing unbridled over warm sand. The idea that we assert our identities and our civic freedoms by our public visibility runs very deep.
The Burqa is indeed an affront to this historically engrained sensibility. It has been likened to an effacement of identity. Notably, less is said about the responsibility Muslim women purportedly lumber for male arousal by covering their skin, hair and faces. It is literally the idea of being veiled that bothers us most, and not from scrutiny, sexual harassment and hostility, but from a show of public presence which for us equates with democratic participation not to mention sexual autonomy.
By the 1960s however, feminists mounted their own backlash against a kind of commercially co-opted exposure, flogging everything from sanitary pads to perfume, and increasingly limited to young, blonde, slender, tall and sexually available women. Feminists dumped their bras into a bin outside the 1969 Miss America competition in Atlantic City. In many ways the anti-porn movement was a logical response to visibility purely on men’s terms, particularly when it was associated with the eroticisation of rape.
We face off with the Burqa under a veil of inextricably tangled emotions. We like to assert that we express Who We Are with make-up, wrinkle softeners and botox. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see any grace in being understated with Pussycat Dolls filling our screens. Geez, all their routines are missing is a speculum.
Of course what isn’t being admitted, what’s in fact veiled, is that we are facing off with difference - ethnic and religious. We haven’t bothered to ask Muslim women what the Burqa means to them, because we’ve fallen into an entrenched colonial habit of thinking ‘less civilised’ women are oppressed and need us to liberate them, this time with spectacular arrogance, by banning them from having any choice.
What if Muslim women look at Western women’s made up faces and see gender oppression? What if they see plastic surgery as an effacement of identity? What if they see wearing the Burqa as a means to deflect the behaviour of drunken drongos and louts, without having to carry smelly food scraps? Maybe showing their faces has become a display of intimacy, trust and love that means Being At Home? And what if Western women are beholden, nay deeply attached, to traditions that in their origin were patently oppressive? Doesn’t the monogamy that once secured patrilineal property inheritance now define romantic love? Whose daft idea was that? Talk about getting bilked by gender regimes!
The condemning of the Burqa is another round in our habitual failure of imagination when facing off with difference. If we listened respectfully we’d find a wealth of Muslim women who assert their identities unequivocally, with their voices. Needless to say wearing the Burqa is under constant discussion.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Age, 16 May 2010