Comrade Haskell believes we should adopt as policy: “The Socialist Alliance acknowledges that the burqa is a style of dress that disrespects, oppresses, and assaults the dignity of women. It is associated with a number of communities dominated by regressive misogynist mediaeval social values that should be opposed at every opportunity.” (AV Vol 10 No 2).
If we adopted such a policy, it would indicate that the Socialist Alliance believes this Islamic clothing item stands out, in a class of its own, as a style of dress that oppresses women. To do so would imply that western society is the epicentre of liberation and modernity from which to judge other cultures. Ultimately this would only help racists and war mongers.
I personally think high heels are just as much of an imposition on women as any face covering. High heels are often forced upon western women as a social obligation. They can be painfully uncomfortable, a disincentive to engage in normal activities and a health and safety hazard. Where are we going to draw the line about which “oppressive” female clothing items socialists must take a stand on?
I come from a well travelled multicultural family and have other information about the burqa. My great grandfather was a Greek islander orphan who later gained a career with the occupying Ottoman Empire military and was subsequently transferred to Libya. Both my grandmother and great grandmother wore face coverings while they were staying in a Fezzan Desert township, near the Nigerian border, early last century, in about 1903-1907. I am writing my family history and the information given to me by my family, as to why my female ancestors covered their faces in those days, is quite different from the assumptions put forward by Comrade Haskell.
They did not wear face coverings for religious reasons as the family was devoutly Greek Orthodox and were free to maintain their religious beliefs and practices. They were however advised to cover their faces in the Fezzan, as the local Islamic women did, to protect themselves from being kidnapped by slave traders. Like the local Islamic women, they also didn’t go out during the day or unaccompanied. They only went out under cover of darkness, with their faces and bodies fully covered, following a male family member who led the way with a lantern.
My family has told me that these were isolated lawless desert townships in Equatorial Africa. These families were not telling women to cover their faces in order to repress them. Without a social system or set of laws to protect women from predatory behaviour, be it kidnap, slavery or sexual assault, women had to stay indoors or covered up for their own safety.
It is true in this instance that the covering of the face was “associated with … regressive misogynist mediaeval social values”. However the covering of the face was more of a reaction to these conditions rather than the cause of these conditions. At the local Mosque open day a few years ago a cleric told me that the wearing of the burqa is not a religious requirement but a “right” for women wishing to avoid unwanted attention. This is certainly very far from the ideal of women’s rights that we aspire to. But covering the face has clearly offered vulnerable women some sense of security in very dangerous societies. We have to understand that the burqa has thus survived in Islamic culture. We have to accept that others see this garment as a wise form of protection.
Some families and religious hierarchies still pressure women to wear the burqa and socialists naturally condemn these pressures. On the other hand some women in Australia today cover their faces by choice and consider this to be their right. We have no business to wave the finger about these women’s personal choices. Doing so will only alienate their communities from the socialist movement and expose them to further racist intolerance.
Some Islamic women I know have taken to covering themselves after divorce. They, like a lot of other divorced women in Australia, don’t like attracting unwanted attention or moral judgements from members of their community because of their newfound single status. Women in many cultures sometimes respond to these pressures by covering up more than they did previously — in the Islamic culture this particularly applies to covering the head and sometimes also the face. Some young unmarried Islamic women in Australia also cover their faces, against the wishes of their families, to avoid unwanted attention from men. They clearly don’t feel, as Comrade Haskell does, that “the burqa is a style of dress that disrespects, oppresses, and assaults the dignity of women.” They have clearly adopted the wearing of the burqa because of the disrespect, oppression and assaults on their dignity that they experience in Australia today.