Even before the embarrassing back-down there were problems. For starters, it’s not a burqa. A burqa is that particularly Afghan garment, usually blue, with the mesh covering the eyes. The one you’ve seen on the news (or perhaps on Jacqui Lambie’s Facebook page), but almost certainly never in Australia. We’re talking about the niqab, common in the Gulf and worn by – my guess – a couple of hundred Australians. I have to guess, because we don’t even bother with such basic research before we consider banning such things.
It says everything that we can’t even get the name right; that merely to be understood in the argument, you must get it wrong.
Of itself, it’s not a big deal, but it symbolises the calibre of the public conversation. It’s as if we’re demanding a pernicious, industrial-scale ignorance. As if we’re proud of it. 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.
But ignorance is no barrier precisely because this debate really has nothing to do with the women being recast as some kind of problem. Strip it all back and they’ve done nothing to invite this. They aren’t the ones charged with plotting “demonstration killings”. They aren’t the ones being busted carrying weapons or attacking police officers.
They are, however, the ones most often assaulted or abused on the street or on public transport. They’re the ones whose freedom we try most to restrict.
In short, they become the symbolic target for our rage; the avatar we choose to represent a generalised enemy, and the threat it poses. In this, we obey what seems a diabolically universal principle: that whatever the outrage, whatever the fear, and whatever the cause, it is women that must suffer first and most.
So perhaps you’ll forgive these women if they don’t come out in droves to thank Senator Cory Bernardi for rescuing them from what he regards a “shroud of oppression” that “represents the repressive domination of men over women”.
Perhaps you’ll understand they see something other than feminist concern in these words; that Bernardi might look to them a lot like Lord Cromer did to the Egyptian women he colonised in the 19th century.
Cromer similarly decided Egyptian women needed emancipation, and that that they should therefore remove their veils. Meanwhile, back in England, he was the president of the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage.
Before the change of heart it was a burqa ban (see, even I’m doing it now) in Parliament House. The argument was about security, but it’s a thin pretext. If you need to identify someone entering the building, it’s dead easy to do: you take them aside to a private space and ask them to reveal their face for identification purposes. Then you subject them to the same screening as everyone else.
In fact, we already do this sort of thing in airports and secure buildings with no fuss at all. The only reason there’s a fuss now is that we’ve dreamt one up, as Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “mountain over a molehill” response suggests. I can find only one isolated example of an Australian using the anonymity of a niqab to commit a crime. By a man.
This, of course, was enough for Bernardi to declare the niqab the emergent “preferred disguised of bandits and ne’er do wells”, which must accordingly be banned. Not just in banks or Parliament, but everywhere. Very well then, let’s get serious about this. I propose a ban on all disguises used by “bandits” anywhere, ever. Sorry kids, but Spider-Man’s illegal now. Let’s prosecute the CEO of K-Mart for providing material support to terrorism, or something. What are you, a weak-kneed apologist?
No, the security discourse is mere rhetorical camouflage. Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin advised her party’s anti-burqa brigade to mount their case in security terms – not because it is their primary concern, but because it was most likely to succeed. If this looks like a solution in search of a problem, that’s because the “solution” is the entire point.
For Bernardi and Liberal backbencher George Christensen, who pushed it, the real goal is the total ban of the niqab in public. All else is pretext. Feminism doesn’t work? Try security: whatever quasi-respectable way might open the door. It’s the kind of argument that allows Coalition MPs such as the Nationals Darren Chester to argue that “we’re talking about national security; we’re not talking about religion or what people wear”. Maybe that’s true for Chester, but it clearly isn’t for the MPs driving the cause.
Now is when we find out what Team Australia really means. Now is when we discover if it’s designed to unify a diverse nation or to demonise the socially unpopular.
Attorney-General George Brandis has planted his flag in impeccably liberal style: “I have no concerns with Muslims wearing the burqa and I don’t have a preference either because frankly it’s none of [my] business”. Abbott, too, has these instincts within him.
It’s often forgotten that back in 2006 when the Howard government was in the midst of an anti-veiling frenzy, it was he who wrote in the Liberal Party’s journal that “ripping away Muslim girls’ scarves is not going to make them more ‘Australian’. If anything, it’s almost certain to make them feel more vulnerable and ‘different’ “, and that “disparaging the religious symbols of Muslim Australians is at odds with our own best traditions”.
But he’s a leader now. Everything he says is for someone. The question now is: for whom is he speaking? Which team does he have in mind when he decided to share that he wishes niqabs “weren’t worn”?
Given, on his own testimony, no niqabi has ever entered Parliament House, he knew that any ban would be symbolic. Before the back-down, it was merely a matter of which message he wanted to send.
The one that upholds “our own best traditions”? Or the one that tells a minority they aren’t welcome in their own Parliament?
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.