851 Burqa anyone?

So, is the burqa just a fashion item? Of course not, and an article in the SMH says most emphatically, no: Pauline Hanson's Senate stunt shows why we need to confront the ideology behind the burqa, by Elham Manea


SMH photo: Andrew Meares

In Australia anyone can wear what s/he wants to wear ... in private or indeed in public, and I have no objection to that. But myself, I am not comfortable to be confronted by anybody who hides his/her face from me, for whatever reason.


I have written about this before - blog 386

Once a man walked into my gallery, and like most people who visited me, he made eye contact, smiled and gestured in a way to let me know he was ‘just having a look’, not intent on buying anything. That’s fine with me ... I smiled back, “if you have any questions, just let me know.” We acknowledged one another in a pleasant, though uncommitted manner. Then I noticed two more persons, who were with him.


Right behind him was his son, he was about ten years old. When I looked at him, he just smiled at me and started inspecting my pictures. 

But a few meters behind these two males was a female. She hesitantly entered the gallery and remained close to the entrance, with just a cursory glance at my art works. She wore a total body-covering garment - a Niqab - with just her eyes (hardly) visible … not that I got to look at her eyes. She made not even the most fleeting contact with me. I felt most uncomfortable in her presence; I was glad when the three left my shop. 


I believe the face is a person's most important feature when it comes to interacting with other people. Facial expressions are consequential in communications; often a facial expression is as important - if not even more so - than the spoken word. This issue of course is most pertinent for a photographer who likes to photograph people ... one is inclined to concentrate on the face. 

For me the security issue brought up by Hanson is secondary, if not spurious. That of course is just a superficial personal opinion. In her article E. Manea goes deeper:


Pauline Hanson wearing a burqa in Parliament was a political stunt. We know that. It was not meant as a defence for women's rights. Obviously. You do not have to like her politics or her party. Put your aversion aside and focus on the issue she was raising.

The burqa (niqab in Arabic) is a symbol. When you see it in a community, it indicates that an ideology and a radical form of Islam are spreading. In my field research on women and sharia law in Britain, South Africa and Middle Eastern countries, I heard this sentence a lot: "Ten years ago, we only had few women with the burqa. Today there are plenty."


Let's just get something straight: the burqa is not Islamic. It is a custom imported from Najd, a region in Saudi Arabia and the power base of its Salafi fundamentalist form of Islam. Within Muslim countries it is very contested and considered fringe. Even conservative Mufti of Al Azhar  - the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam - said in a 2010 TV program that the burqa is a "custom" not a "religious requirement".


1979 witnessed the Iranian Islamic revolution, the occupation of radical Salafis of the holy Kabaa in Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The three events led to an active Saudi policy, enforcing the dogmas of its politicised fundamentalism in its own borders and spreading it worldwide. Religion was a tool to fight communism and to claim leadership of the Islamic world. But it was not any religion that was promoted. It was a fringe fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

Women according to this world view, are a source of evil that should be covered from head to toe to protect the men from seduction. They are perpetual minors, obedient to their male guardians. Husbands have the right to discipline their wives by beating.


In Muslim majority countries, this type of Islam has led to persecution of minorities - think of the persecution of Christians and Ahmadyyias in Indonesia. In Western societies it leads to the segregation of Muslim minorities in closed societies. It paves the ground actively for the recruitment of disoriented youth to violence. So when you see women in burqa, think of the ideology that is mainstreaming it. We should confront it - Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

A final note; it helps to think of this issue from the perspective of the tradition that produced it. In Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and IS-controlled areas women are forced to wear it. Why do you think Saudi women activists have launched this year a campaign with the hash tag the niqab (burqa) does not represent me? They are rejecting this oppression and fighting for their freedom. I am sure many of them are wondering why on earth some Australian politicians are defending "Muslim women's right to wear the burqa". Think of enslavement as synonymous to burqa, and their marvel will become clear.


Dr Elham Manea is an Islamic scholar in the department of political science at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, a former Swiss government commissioner and author of Women and Sharia Law.