By David B. Smith
I feel I should begin today with something of an apology. As you probably realise, I am not a Muslim and I am not a woman, which makes me radically ill-qualified, I think, to speak on the topic of how Muslim women should dress! Even so, I appreciate that today's meeting is seeking to give voice to concerns felt across the community, and so I suppose it is not entirely inappropriate for me to share my thoughts with you, as a representative of the white, male, Protestant end of our community.
I must say too though that I find it hard to get my head around this issue too, as it Is not a simple matter of Muslim practices being in tension with the non-Muslim population.
Many Muslims in this country and around the world are actually opposed to the wearing of the burqa and to all forms of veiling. Conversely, some of those who choose to wear the burqa are not Muslims! There are orthodox Jewish women in Israel, for instance, who wear it today, and certainly if you go back in history you will find that Christians from the Church Fathers onwards were very much in favour of the practice of veiling!
This all makes the issue of the burqa a complex one.
And I know that every complex problem has a simple answer, but I know too that the simple answer is invariably the wrong answer, and nowhere is this more true than with regards to this case.
# 'Women should be able to dress as they please'. That's a simple answer to the question, but it's one that I suspect most of those who wish to wear the burqa would themselves probably not endorse.
# 'The burqa is a symbol of female oppression and therefore has no place in Australian society'. That's another simple response, but even if the statement were true, the solution to women's oppression is surely not to implement laws that restrict women in their choices about what they can wear!
The issue, as I say, is a complex one, requiring a complex answer, and it's a problem that takes on different dimensions in the different countries and cultures where it has been debated - in France, in Belgium, in Turkey, in Syria, and here.
Having said that, despite these complexities, I think there are a couple of things in our context - in Australia - that are quite straightforward - two things in fact.
The first is that the wearing of the burqa in this country is actually a very minor issue.
That is, despite all the noise being made about the burqa, from what I can see, hardly anybody is actually wearing it!
The Muslim population in this country is still only about 2% at this stage, and I suspect that it's not much more than 2% of the Muslim population that actually wants to wear a burqa! I may be slightly underestimating but however we do the numbers, we can say with complete confidence this country is not about to be over-run by any army of burqa-wearing women - not now and not at any time in the foreseeable future!
The second point, and it's related to the first, is that I think it's reasonably clear that what is driving most Australians in their concern about the burqa is not a passion for women's rights any more than it is a concern for security issues that might be compromised if burqa-wearing becomes common-place. It is rather a simple fear of the unknown, and a sense of alienation from what seems to be a very foreign dress-code.
I was reading some autobiographical notes from a woman by the name of Karen Armstrong who was talking about her experience as a nun during the "swinging 60's" in Britain. Armstrong talks about the suspicion she and her sisters aroused in England at that time, dressed in their voluminous black robes, with only a small portion of their faces on view to the public. She writes:
"Catholicism was still feared as unassimilable, irredeemably alien to the British ethos, fanatically opposed to democracy and freedom, and a fifth column allied to dangerous enemies abroad." She continues: "Today the veiled Muslim woman appears to symbolise the perceived Islamic threat, as nuns once epitomised the evils of popery."
I can appreciate that, for the dominant culture of that day, the sudden appearance of nuns would have been confronting and unsettling for many in the community. Subsequent experience though revealed that we really had nothing to fear from nuns. Similarly, I don't believe we have anything to fear from veiled Islamic women either.
Of course the veil appears to be alien to the dominant culture in this country at the moment, but the solution to that is surely not to increase alienation and fear by going to war with those who wish to wear it. The solution to overcoming alienation and fear is to sit down and dialogue with those we feel alienated from, to see if those fears are reality-based or in fact stem from a misunderstanding.
In our context this means inviting Islamic women (most especially) to speak, so that we might better understand why they veil. Do they feel oppressed? Do they wear the burqa for reasons of personal piety or is it more of a protest against colonialism or secular values? For In truth, the burqa can mean all these things.
As I say, I can only speak for the white, male, Protestant end of the community (and I'm not sure to what extent I can really speak for that) but I think I can say with some confidence that most of us white, male, Protestants are pretty ignorant of Islam, of Islamic culture, and of the role the burqa has played historically and culturally in the places where it has been worn. And so our initial response to those who do not conform to our regular dress code then must surely be to try and understand why they do not want to conform, rather than to attempt to enforce conformity.