Farah asked – some months ago, but better late than never! – to hear what I have to say on the proposed burqa ban, as some were calling it, in NSW. I took so amazingly long to write this that the bill has since gone to vote and been, yay, rejected. It’s still important to discuss, I think, and the climate that produced the proposal is still there. And, as I’m sure you know, there are bans and proposed bans cropping up around the world. I’m not sure how much value my words are going to be here as I’ve nothing truly original to say and, not being a Muslim myself, this is simply a case of yet another non-Muslim woman talking. But I am gratified to think that my thoughts might matter to Farah, and I have things to say, so I’ll say my piece.
People who are proposing and passing these bans are claiming that they want to do the right thing by the poor oppressed Muslim women. These bans and proposed bans are not about their purported claims of saving Muslim women. First, it’s very insulting to bustle in and “save” a group of people without their input, also kind of not possible. It denies the people you are “saving” any agency or thought or personhood, really. Which, second, goes to show that it’s not so much about saving Muslim women as disappearing signs of Elsewhere that make people who are used to having their culture dominate uncomfortable. Thirdly, what effects do these lawmakers think the bans are going to have? There are going to be women who go out in public wearing their own gear in spite of the ban, because they’re not going to let it stop them, because they feel a religious/social/cultural obligation to, because it’s their own business. And they are going to get punished for that. There are going to be women who will not go out in public because they don’t feel comfortable going out in clothing they find immodest or inappropriate. On what planet is that a service to women?
Here’s the thing. Support for Muslim women entails support for Muslim women. That means supporting those who wish to wear particular garments in accordance with their religious beliefs. That means supporting those who wish to not wear any such garments, for whatever reasons. That means approaching Muslim women as beings with agency, who don’t need other people to make decisions for them. And it’s about recognising that Muslim women are women with full lives and selves in and beyond this. Outsiders get to play around and make the decisions, but at the end of the day these are people’s lives.
Something I’ve been encountering a lot over the last while around this – and, let’s face it, around a lot of things, a lot of the time – is a contempt for some people’s religious practice. Forcing women to adhere to a religious practice is oppressive, and so is forcing them to violate their religious beliefs. I don’t care if you don’t understand why someone adheres to Islam, or any belief system, or associated practices – though, frankly, it’s a big world, get out there and learn. I don’t care if you are a bit iffy on what those beliefs and practices signify or mean. What I need you to do – what the world needs you to do – is respect that these things are often an integral component of people’s lives and being and ways of seeing and being in the world, and allowing your confusion or smirks or whatever is going on with you to overshadow, stamp all over, that beauty and sacredness and selfhood is utterly disgusting. Shrinking experiences – of culture and life and community, which often include oppressive elements, to be sure – you do not share or understand down to ‘hmm, are those Muslim women being oppressed?’ is beyond dismissive on to a whole other plane.
It should be blatantly obvious that forcing women to dress in a particular way – which includes prohibiting certain kinds of clothing – is misogynistic. Those “other” women – and Muslim women are often characterized as, though are not always, the non-white women, the foreign women, the women over there – are women, too.
It’s not about political correctness, it’s not about being nice about those “other” cultures. These lawmakers are not taking cues from Muslim women as to what they want done to assist them in what they wish to be assisted in, but just talking over them. And the lawmakers really need to reconsider the extent to which they are actually helping. One of the major reasons cited in proposing these bans is a wish for everyone to assimilate: fear of the other. I’ve written my thoughts on this matter previously, and you can go read them. But just for now, just here: you want to ban a significant part of people’s cultures and religion, and you’re the ones who feel threatened? Go sit in a corner or something until you learn the errors of your ways, because that is simply amazing.
Head coverings for Muslim women are politically charged, but at the end of the day they are garments of cultural and religious significance. When those political fights move from centring the women they are supposedly aimed at protecting – from centring what they want and experience rather than centring them as a prop – that’s when we have a problem.
Getting back to what I was saying in the first paragraph, this is just me trying to support Muslim women as best I can, but me projecting my voice is not good enough. Because there are enough non-Muslim people talking about this issue, and talking around Muslim women. Muslim voices are getting silenced in favour of so-called righteous indignation from people who are not the ones who are going to be affected by the bans. I’ve written this because I think it’s important to show support for those who would be and are being affected, but I’d be remiss if I let this be one more instance of a non-Muslim talking over Muslim women themselves, one more silencing of Muslim women such that these bans enact even as they claim to remove oppression. Please go read and listen to what Muslim women are saying, and what Muslim women have to say about other folks butting in and trying to save them in general.
If anyone tries to pass something like this again in my state, if a ban might seriously pass, you can be certain I’m going to be protesting outside Parliament House along with the people who care about Muslim women’s rights and autonomy – most importantly, standing with Muslim women themselves.