by Sarah Irving
For a piece of cloth, the burqa arouses an extraordinary amount of emotion. In France women wearing it have been criminalised, and politicians throughout the Western world seem keen to capitalise on it as an emblem of ‘otherness’. This sheet of dark fabric unites some right-wing patriarchal men and some left-wing feminist women in opposition, whether because it is interpreted as a symbol of women’s oppression or as a tool of terrorists. But, for those who choose to wear the burqa or the niqab, it can confer "a sense of value, control, and security."
In Sydney, Australia debate around the burqa has been focused onto a small patch of wall in the diverse, vibrant neighbourhood of Newtown. Here, in autumn 2010, glass artist Sergio Redegalli painted a large mural on the side of his studio building. It shows the outline of a woman in a burqa, enclosed in a red circle and cut through by a broad slash in the style of a traffic warning sign. The words ‘Say No To Burqas’ are emblazoned over the image. As if to highlight the many debates about the way women’s bodies are (un)clothed and represented, usually by men, a large glass sculpture of four nude women, torsos outstretched, sits on top of Redegalli’s studio.
The outcry against Redegalli’s mural – which has included over half a dozen demonstrations, up to 40 attempts to paint over or deface the image, and a number of arrests – has been presented in much of the Australian press as an attempt to suppress his freedom of expression. In the Murdoch-owned Australian newspaper, Redegalli branded those opposed to his painting as ‘bullies’, and the word was enthusiastically picked up by the paper’s headline writer. The local Sydney Morning Herald quoted Redegalli as saying "he had painted it to open debate about the burqa, but now felt his right to freedom of expression was on the line."
In May an art exhibition and debate, held just yards from Redegalli’s mural, showcased the more nuanced debates over the burqa and other Islamic women’s dress.
“It’s complicated,” says Renata Field of the Cross Border Collective, one of the exhibition organisers of the response to Redegalli’s mural. "Even for some people in the left there’s an issue in that some people are not pro-burqa, and they can’t understand that you can be not pro-burqa but still anti-mural, which is where a a lot of the organisers stand anyway. Whatever your position on the burqa, I think it’s still not OK to have a mural that creates such a feeling of racism and hatred and oppression in the area, or anywhere."
The exhibition - organised by the Cross Border Collective, Muslim Youth of Sydney, and Justice And Arts Network (JAAN) - showed just how disparate the views on this issue are, even from people who in the first instance support women’s right to choose forms of dress which cover the face. Artworks incorporating written text came from both feminist and faith-based perspectives; performance art pieces problematised the way ordinary people react to women in unfamiliar clothing in public spaces. Photographic portraits challenged the myths of white ‘discovery’ of Australia and the country’s modern treatment of asylum seekers, and celebrated female beauty in the context of religiously modest clothing.
According to another organizer Oishee Alam of JAAN, staging the exhibition was also about finding a more positive space in which to explore the community’s ideas about and reactions to the burqa debate. “Rather than just attack the mural itself, we wanted to go for a different approach, to create an alternative,” says Alam. “Sergio has had his say, and this is an opportunity for other artists and other people to have [theirs], and to express their thoughts.”
According to Alam and Field, the exhibition and the wider campaign against Redegalli’s mural have had to tread carefully amidst complex local politics. Efforts by the Marrickville Council to sign up to the global boycott of Israeli goods in protest at the country’s human rights abuses were met with vicious attacks from the Australian media. The reaction the council suffered has affected the extent to which some local people and organisations are willing to be open about their opinions, thinks Alam. “We wrote to the Council about the mural and asked community organisations to put their names to it,” she says. “People told us that they supported what we were doing on an individual level, but that they couldn’t sign up because they are dependent on public funding and political good-will.”
A public forum during the exhibition also embraced subtleties in the burqa debate that are rarely acknowledged by the mainstream media. Hanan Dover, a high-profile psychologist and hijab-wearing community activist, urged commentators on the burqa to see it as a local rather than an international issue. The experience of a woman wearing strict Islamic dress in Iran or Afghanistan, under legal compulsion or for fear of attack, is very different from that of women in Australia who make the active choice to cover themselves.
But, Dover points out, this is a distinction rarely recognised by those who argue against the burqa on that grounds that it infringes upon women’s human rights. Citing examples of burqa-wearing businesswomen in Australia, she says “a growing number of Australian Muslim women are speaking out and representing themselves. Sometimes that means they’ve had to challenge Muslim men who also try to speak for them. The media depicts Muslim women as silenced and in a ‘dark age’, but we’re most silenced by white prejudice and assumptions about us.”
Dr. Christina Ho, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, puts Dover’s arguments into a wider political context. “This mural is in an area where most people will never even see a burqa,” she points out. “It affects very few people directly – but lots of people indirectly. It puts Muslims on notice that they’re not wanted.”
The women’s rights argument against the burqa, Ho claims, is “the most insidious part of the debate.” In Australia such views have been routinely put forward by socially conservative politicians and campaigners who are happy to curtail women’s rights in other parts of life, and also by journalists who write travel articles celebrating the exploitation of women in the ‘cheap fleshpots’ of Cambodia.
“Criminalising women for wearing the burqa doesn’t liberate them,” Dr. Ho comments of recent French legislation. “And before people get so worked up about Muslim women being oppressed, maybe they need to take another look at mainstream Australian society.”
Perhaps the most important part of Ho’s argument is that we need to stop talking about the burqa. It is, as she implies, a red herring. Despite the tiny number of women in Australia who actually cover their faces, whipping up fear and mistrust is a useful tool for those whose agenda is to arouse hostility against the latest in the many waves of migrants who have arrived in Australia over the past two centuries.
Thirty years ago the hysteria was against Vietnamese incomers. Forty years ago, it was ‘Lebbos’ - Lebanese refugees. At the start of the twentieth century the White Australia policy saw Chinese people, who had lived in the country as long as the white settlers, expelled. As a white foreigner who could probably settle legally in Australia with ease, it is chilling to witness how ‘Anglo’ Australia draws its arbitrary lines in the sand. Declaring Muslims – whether recent arrivals or third-generation Australians - as ‘alien’ seems profoundly hypocritical in a country composed almost entirely of immigrants.
About the Author:
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer specializing in social and environmental issues and the Middle East. Her features have been published in the Guardian Online, the New Internationalist, and Electronic Intifada, among others. Sarah is co-author of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs (Pluto, 2010) and her biography of Palestinian fighter Leila Khaled is due for publication in 2011.