Feminist wacademics are trying to find excuses for not opposing even the identity-obliterating burqa:
We never bother to ask Muslim women what covering up means to them.
We are so much worse, with our “entrenched colonial habit of thinking… Â if we listened respectfully we’d find a wealth of Muslim women who assert their identities unequivocally…”
I HAVE a travel tip for young women. There are places where a burqa makes a lot of sense.
I have a burqa for ya, Liz. Â Cheep, not free. One that makes sense. Just like Hotel California: you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave. Have we got a deal?
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. (no problem with catmeat?)
When I returned to Melbourne I copped as much street level abuse. Big trucks blasted their horns as I sat reading quietly in bus stops. Carloads of kerb-cruisers bawled out: ”Show us your tits”. (Don’t worry, Liz. those days are over. I really don’t want to see your tits. Ever!) When I remonstrated with them I was warned: ”You want a smack in the face as well!”
Nice. Little did I know then that this invasive scrutiny would soon dissolve by the simple device of pushing a pram. Such a time often coincides with that baffling hinterland of femininity when all that wearisome street surveillance slips behind a 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. 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. (Try it in an Islamic country, Liz!)
The burqa is indeed an affront to this historically ingrained 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, 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.
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. (Muslim women use make up, wrinkle softeners and Botox too, what’s your problem, Liz?) It’s unlikely we’ll ever see any grace in being understated with Pussycat Dolls filling our screens.
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. (They have a choice, Liz: Islam or death. You just can’t get your head through the glass ceiling to see it…)
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? Maybe showing their faces has become a display of intimacy, trust and love that means ”Being At Home”?
And what if Western women are deeply attached to traditions that in their origin were patently oppressive? Like taking men’s names in marriage? 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. (Get an education, Liz. Read the Koran & the hadith. Learn to respect your own before you elevate a barbarian cult above what you think you know!)
Liz Conor is the author of The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s and a research fellow in the Department of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.