An Australian MP's burqa-wearing stunt this week won't be last time this issue will come up. But under the veil of the Western preoccupation with head covering, what is this really about?
This week, Australia’s far-right One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson walked into the Senate wearing a black burqa to demonstrate that it’s a security risk as it conceals a person’s identity. The stunt was part of the party’s call to ban the burqa.
In theatrical fashion, Hanson removed the veil to declare her identity as if it wasn’t already clear from the security process to enter parliament. But when it comes to the veil and the Muslim it conceals, emotions trump facts.
This is, of course, not the first time - and certainly won’t be the last time - the issue of head covering has been raised here. Just last month at its convention in Queensland, the Australian Liberal Party (LNP) rejected a ban on Muslim immigration, but did call for a ban on headscarves for children under the age of 10 in some schools.
While fighting the temptation to ban the subject of their anxiety (Muslims), the message at the convention was clear: "We don’t mind Muslims so as long as we tell them how to be Muslims."
The message at the convention was clear: 'We don’t mind Muslims so as long as we tell them how to be Muslims'
Europe has similarly expressed concerns over hidden bodies. Earlier this month, a property owner in Marseille reportedly forced a woman to pay nearly $600 after she wore a burkini while swimming in a communal pool. The owner claimed that the pool had to be cleaned after she used it.
While France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and others have banned the veil in various spaces, there is no official ban in Australia, but it has been a frequent topic of contention over the past 15 years.
Hanson’s speech and the LNP’s decision coincide with the release last month a study on Islamophobia in Australia involving multiple universities around the country which confirmed what many of us perhaps already knew: veiled women are overwhelmingly the targets of Islamophobic attacks.
What is it about a piece of cloth over a person’s head that provokes so much debate? Or over a woman’s head? Or a Muslim woman’s head? Or a child’s head? A Muslim child’s head?
The more specific this question becomes, the more anxious its tone. What begins as an otherwise banal inquiry transforms into one that amplifies to hysterical levels, spilling out emotionally and infecting the public discourse on everything from immigration to security to women’s rights.
The West’s obsession with the powerful image of the veil has enabled what the author and academic Edward Said described as its way to come to terms with the East and all its complexities
Western preoccupation with the veil - in all its forms - has generated countless articles and studies, each vying to offer an explanation, a way of coming to terms with not only a post-9/11 fixation, but one that is centuries old.
Stripped back to its most reoccurring theme, the West’s obsession with the powerful image of the veil has enabled what the author and academic Edward Said described as its way to come to terms with the East and all its complexities. The veiled and unveiled, these supposedly mutually exclusive categories, were markers of civilisational boundaries for the West and a way of narrating East-West relations.
Theordore Chasseriau's 1849 painting Woman and Little Girl of Constantine with a Gazelle (Wikicommons)
At the same time, this narrative foretold a history of modernity which promised the fulfilment of human progress with the arrival of freedom. The unveiling of the body was the manifest destiny of humans at the end of history. The history of modernity is a story of knowing the body, and how it became a tool of power, manipulated and shaped by its aspirations, at the same time modernity convinced us of the body’s liberation.
The unveiling of the body signalled the liberation of women’s desires from a past bogged down in irrational beliefs and tradition, which denied women the right to enjoy, to experience and know the body and all its pleasures. The veiled body was perceived as a refusal of this freedom and a marker of racial difference through the absence of freedom.
This preoccupation with detecting modernity on the body spread like a contagion to other parts of the world where women’s bodies became pertinent to modern nation-building projects in Tunisia, Turkey, Iran and Egypt. These countries enforced policies that introduced a narrative of women’s liberation, and therefore the nation’s entry into modernity, by the removal of the veil. The more visible women’s bodies became, the more evidence that reason, enlightenment, freedom, progress and history had finally made itself home in the Arab and Muslim world.
But in the war on terror, the question of the "enemy within" has transposed the veiled body from simply a sign of unfreedom and a relic of the past to a sinister presence in a paranoid climate obsessed with knowledge of what the other is hiding. Freedom is in jeopardy and must show its face.
It is not simply the covered head, but covering one’s desires that is such a cause of concern for a West that has assumed that it is the agent of fulfilling women’s freedoms and desires
The veil, once accused of oppressing Muslim women "over there", is now within "our" borders and threatening to oppress everyone as it is increasingly identified as a symptom of radicalisation. This isn’t simply radicalisation leading to "terrorism", but cultural excesses which could threaten the natural makeup of the nation – “our way of life”.
The controversy over the visibility of Islam (minarets, mosques, halal certification) as cultural menaces also plays out on women’s bodies. Muslim women and their veils – burkini, niqab, hijab, burqa - have shifted from victims of Islamic fundamentalism to potential agents of Islamic fundamentalism, measured by how much her body is covered up.
These anxious calls to ban the veil throughout Europe, North America and Australia is better understood by what Sherene Razack, a postcolonial feminist scholar and a professor in UCLA’s Department of Gender Studies, has observed as the merging of the idea of the dangerous Muslim man and the imperilled Muslim woman to what I now see as the imperilling Muslim woman.
In December 1960 during Algeria's war of independence, a veiled woman walks down in a street in Algiers as French soldiers look on (AFP)
This is the return of the Muslim woman that philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon observed in the Algerian struggle for independence: she sees without being seen and carries weapons beneath her veil. But what is often missed about Fanon’s observation is that this gaze wasn’t simply the one that hides beneath the veil, but the one that refuses to be known veiled or unveiled.
It is not simply the covered head, but covering one’s desires that is such a cause of concern for a West that has assumed it is the agent of fulfilling women’s freedoms and desires. But what one does with the freedom the West claims to offer is never determined. Perhaps it’s this insecure relationship to freedom that is being covered over in the efforts to unveil Muslim women.
The desire to ban headscarves for children in Australia under a certain age is a telling sign of the shift towards this idea of the imperilling Muslim woman. The woman who has been lost to the veil of violence, sanctioned by her Islam. This anxious gaze has taken preemptive measures and turned to a time before she became a cultural menace: when she was a child whose innocence was taken away.
Akin to the French rationale for banning veils in certain spaces, members of the LNP argued during their July convention that while they respect freedom of religion, children should not be wearing “sexually modest clothing”.
The girl-child, whose universal innocence and vulnerability cannot be forgotten has become imperative to the ideological rationale for the war on terror
“I really suspect that these (Muslim) mothers would love it if we said, 'You know what? You're not allowed to put your daughter in this from the age of five, but once she hits puberty we recognise that's what's accepted in the Quran and you can do it from that point,” Brooke Patterson, a member of the party, argued.
Not only does this statement reveal a saviour fantasy - protecting the girl-child from the constraints of culture as part of a magical knowing what Muslim women would prefer - but Muslims are also corrected on what Islam actually has to say on the subject. This is where Islamophobia, as an anxious preoccupation with Muslims, really thrives: it demands Islam to be interrogated at the same time that it provides it with answers. Nowhere does this answer seem more certain than knowing what is good for Muslim children.
The girl-child, whose universal innocence and vulnerability cannot be forgotten – how many times have we seen Malala splashed across the front pages of Western magazines and papers? – has become imperative to the ideological rationale for the war on terror. What Columbia University anthropology and women’s and gender studies professor Lila Abu Lughod describes as “the new common sense” of going to war for women is extended more militantly to the post-political protection of children.
Young Syrian women walk past the walls of Damascus' landmark Ummayad Mosque (AFP)
This is, of course, a gendered discourse, reinforcing not only racist tropes, but also sexist assumptions in that the boy-child is already showing signs of radicalisation so is an agent of change, whereas the girl-child is passively waiting to be changed, unaware she is vulnerable to culturally harmful practices such as forced marriage, FGC, and veiling.
Banning the headscarf implies that the unveiled child is a neutral blank canvas. With schooling, this blank canvas will be provided with the tools to become people who have the capacity to exercise independent choice and reason – something a piece of cloth apparently has extraordinary powers to prevent. Forget that childhood is the most closely regulated period of our lives. By delaying the veiling of Muslim girls whose gaze, it is supposed, is closely regulated, they would have a better understanding of their place in the world.
My faith and culture was not put aside at the school gates. It did not simply vanish in the absence of the veil
As someone whose entire education has been in the West, it is clear that such a belief is premised on liberal fantasy. Like my peers who came from different cultural and religious backgrounds, my faith and culture was not put aside at the school gates; it did not simply vanish in the absence of the veil. It informed what I would wear which I kept modest, what I would eat, when I attempted to fast, finding places to pray, how I perceived the world.
In the eyes of my peers, I was a veiled girl. It is simply perverse reductionism to conflate veiling with sexual modesty – something liberals show more fidelity to than the "religious fundamentalists" who are accused of sexualising children as it erases the embodied lived practice of being Muslim.
What is also assumed in this most recent effort to regulate children into liberal practices of freedom - for that is what it is being called for here – is that there is an absence of the veil. The veil, I have argued in my research, has both a material and symbolic presence. By this, I mean how we make sense of our bodies are already forms of veiling – ways of naming what our bodies mean to us and to the world.
Discourses of race, gender, sex, culture, fashion, beauty, and yes, even liberalism’s language of autonomy, choice and freedom are ways of dressing the body which otherwise cannot be made sense of. What we do with our bodies - through clothing, grooming, tattooing, exercising to meet health and beauty ideals, religious rituals (fasting, praying), sexual encounters - and what is done to our bodies - medical surgery and violence – are experiences which give bodies their symbolic weight, allowing us to give them meaning.
There are all kinds of veils, if we are only willing to see them.
- Sahar Ghumkhor is an Australian-based researcher exploring the intersections of race, psychoanalysis and gender.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Veils are displayed on a women fashion stall of the annual meeting of French Muslims organised by the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) in Le Bourget, outside Paris, on 2 April 2010 (AFP)