Angelus Morningstar discusses the many problems with a ban on Islamic religious clothing.
Those of you outside Australia may not be aware that there is heightened discussion around a burqa-ban (even when most people seem to be talking about the niqab or other type of covering). It has inflamed long-standing cultural xenophobia, all wrapped up in security rhetoric.
My article will touch on a few interconnected points, deconstructing some of this rhetoric in general, but also highlighting the warrant for critique and healthy scepticism from the public. It is a very large topic, and I shall refrain from a digression into a complete deconstruction of the international politics regarding this issue.
Instead, I will focus on the semiotics at play, and how there is an appropriation of cultural artifacts to stigmatise; traditional Islamic coverings in this instance. I’ll approach this from the perspective of a feminist and a secularist.
Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the inherent problem of me commenting on this issue. I am writing as an outsider, and my writing comes from this perspective. As Aly has stated:
“We’ll tell these women what their clothing signifies. We’ll tell them why they wear it. We’ll even rename it for them if we want. These women will be deconstructed and reconstructed at our will, and without their involvement. These are the terms of the debate and the most influential voices will be the most ignorant.”
To that end, here are some other commentators I think deserve your attention, including Bibaaq Osman’s observations of the intrinsic contradiction of instituting bans in the name of women’s rights, and Margaret Hartmann’s reflection on the efficacy of the French ban.
More specifically, I’d like to also point out Mehreen Faruqi’s (a Member of the Legislative Council of New South Wales) and Sahar Amer’s (Professor and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney) condemnation of the Australian situation.
I also want to highlight Pinar Sadar’s argument that Islamic feminists purposefully wear hijab as an expression of alignment of their feminism with their spiritual beliefs. She argues that the act becomes a form of reclamation and even a direct address to the patriarchy they contend with in Islam.
As a particular example, she highlights the Safra Project and its use of the hijab as a symbol of inclusivity for lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer Muslim women; but also as an emblem of their rights advocacy. Their use embraces the hijab as a form of gender play, and a way to reconcile their beliefs with their sexuality, but also to affirm their cultural identity in the presence of other LGBTI groups that are unwelcoming to visibly Islamic outfits.
For my part, as an outside observer, I find the rhetoric calling for the ban to be riddled with contradictions. Most of this rhetoric can be reduced to the perpetration of Western cultural dominance. The contradictions of Western discussions on the burqa, the niqab, and the hijab are most clearly revealed in the cognitive dissonance related to other forms of religious clothing.
Alongside discussions of Islamic clothing, there is next to no critique of a similar nature applied to the the nun’s habit in the public domain, despite habits serving nearly identical purposes. Likewise, most public commentary fails to examine the religious practice among some married Jewish women of covering their hair with tichels or snoods (the French ban, however, was expanded to include all worn religious iconography). We do see echoes of these attitudes when discussions turn to turbans or kufiyyat.
Security concerns aren’t consistently applied toward traditional European modesty garments (I suspect bonnets, hoop skirts, or the mourner’s veil would not provoke similar ire), as the airport security profiling of people of Middle Eastern appearance is well documented. Instead, the alarmism is a symptom of an underlying alienation we seem have to collectively, routinely, and unconsciously imposed on these Others.
It smacks of Orientalism, where Western authors, scholars, and commentators reduce Middle Eastern cultures to being underdeveloped and regressive, which allows us/them to consistently compare them unfavourably to Western values. Traditional items of clothing are rendered as synonymous with the most radical or conservative elements of these cultures (read as dangerous).
Westerners often experience feelings of fascination and horror regarding the religious practices originating from the Middle East, without extending those same concerns to other cultures. Such contradictions fail to give a true notion that the issue concerns religious fundamentalism or women’s liberation. Instead, it is far too reminiscent of McCarthyism and the Red Scare.
I think it is important to acknowledge that this discussion is happening against an international backdrop of sabre rattling, which is supposed to articulate the West’s response to ISIL/ISIS/QSIS/Deash. The contest of naming is highly symbolic of the cultural faultlines of this conflict. That is, we are observing a propaganda conflict, with all sides claiming legitimacy.
Significantly, the main diplomatic currency that states have when utilizing violence and weaponry relies upon their legitimacy as states. These semantic distinctions are key in determining which violent act is terrorism and which is humanitarian intervention. Depending on your understanding of international relations, you might find those distinctions thin and unavailing.
This pattern of activity hauntingly echos Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis; he argues that in the absence of the bipolarity of the Cold War, human aggression would form around fault lines of different groups of civilisations informed by (among other things) religious ideology.
For my part in this article, I conform to Huntington’s critics, including Sen, Berman, and Said, in suggesting that the rigidity of these ‘civilisation groups’ and their borders is not so clearly delineated.
Moreover, I following Chomsky’s media critiques, as applied to this scenario, which highlight the need to construct an ideological opponent to justify military action by global powers. Jewell’s ‘five-point plan used to justify wars’ sheds further light on this issue.
With this global perspective in mind, I find myself deeply skeptical towards burqa-bans in the name of enlightened Western values. These cultural clothes evoke strong responses by dint of reminding us that we stand in the presence of non-Western culture. The lack of assimilation strikes us as a failure of globalisation, which simultaneously appropriates from every culture and then refuses to embrace the cosmopolitanism that necessarily follows.
There is far too much symbolism at play in the name of war. Articles of clothing are perceived as signs of danger, supposedly allowing us to tell friend from foe; all conveniently marked and signed for us to recognise. Who needs to create badges of shame when your designated scapegoat comes wearing symbols that you can easily appropriate?
*editor’s note: This post originally appeared with a different image, which we chose to change after learning of the origins of the artwork.