Australia's burqa fallacy


Given recent media coverage, one could be excused for thinking the Taliban had set up shop in Australia.

Last month alone there were Today Tonight promos exclaiming 'burqa rage'; an episode of Channel 7's panel discussion program Can of Worms which featured debate about whether the burqa has a place in Australia; a report about a group of Geelong men who created a 'Ban the Burqa' protest on Facebook; and a brief and less than satisfactory discussion of Islamic dress on ABC1's Q&A.

The burqa it seems is du jour. Yet there seems to be not pertinent reason for this.

There was the recent Carnita Matthews court case, wherein footage caught by a dashboard camera proved she had wrongfully accused a police officer of trying to forcibly remove her niqab (face veil, not burqa). But this one incident, which occurred last year, surely cannot be grounds for debate.

Perhaps the debate is not really about Islamic dress or even Muslims. It is about Australians.

Not once in any of the recent coverage has there been any information about the composition of the Muslim population in Australia or about how many Muslims actually wear the garment in question. It is more about whether or not we can handle it, irrespective of the actual lay of the land. We debate it because we can, and because we live in a liberal democracy and have the freedom to do so.

But just because we can debate whatever we so choose, doesn't mean we should. As with any right there is the responsibility to exercise it judiciously. In the discussion about burqas this seems to have fallen by wayside.

The aforementioned Q&A episode illustrates this. The show began by discussing the Rupert Murdoch News of the World scandal and a lack of ethical reporting. This was followed later by a discussion about Islamic dress. In fairness the question was raised by an audience member. But rather than shut the question down as unjustified, on account of the fact that very few women wear the niqab (often confused with the burqa) , the discussion gave oxygen to those who are ill informed.

A quick survey of the Muslim population in Australia highlights the absurdity of discussing whether there is a place for the burqa or niqab in our society.

According to the 2006 census only one third of the Muslim population in Australia are from Arabic speaking backgrounds. Many of them wear the hijab (headscarf) rather than the burqa or niqab.

For example, 8.9 per cent of Arabic speaking Muslims migrated from Lebanon where the hijab or chador (a loose head-cover similar to the hijab) is preferred. The next largest population hails from Turkey (14.6 per cent), where once again the hijab is favored.

The countries where the burqa is worn are comparatively poorly represented in Australia. Afghan migrants, for example, represent only 4.7 per cent, and not all Afghan women wear the burqa. Immigration figures from the Horn of Africa are also low.

In fact, the likelihood of seeing someone in a burqa or niqab in Australia is probably less than what it would be in France, where it was estimated that only around 1900 women wear the niqab (less than 0.00003 per cent of the French population).

The upshot of this is that those debating whether the burqa has a place in Australia are not dealing with reality, and are in fact just a little self indulgent. Yes, we live in a liberal democracy. We have freedom of speech. But debate for the sake of debate is pointless and vain.

I'm not suggesting there shouldn't be healthy debate around Islam. Debate about what Islam is and what it means for the many different groups that comprise the 'house(s) of Islam' is essential. But debate needs to focus on developing understanding rather than fostering division and difference.

The kind of 'Mickey Mouse' journalism we have seen regarding this issue functions as grist for the mill of bigots and should have no place in Australia. It strengthens unwanted stereotypes and cultural rifts. Things that a truly free and open society should seek to avoid. 

David TittensorDavid Tittensor is a Research Associate at the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University.

Topic tags: David Tittensor, Centre for Dialogue, Latrobe University, burqa, niqab, Carnita Matthews, Q&A



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Existing comments

I agree with your article David. Public knowledge in Australia about Islam, the burqua, the hijab and the niqab is ignorant and that includes most of the mainstream media. TV shows such as the ABC's 'Q & A' and the channel 7 'Today Tonight' are garbage and provide no useful information and comment to any debate.
Mark Doyle | 03 August 2011

The sanest statements about this public debate that I have ever seen, based on simple observation of reality. I challenge anyone living in Melbourne to say they have ever seen someone wear a burqa in this city, or in Australia generally. Where is this pernicious debate coming from? The foundation of the debate itself, that women wear burqas in Australia, is built on sand: it comes from a comlete ignorance of what a burqa is. Do we hear complaints about Jews wearing hats in Balaclava on Saturday? Why should we? It's their business, not ours. The burqa debate is based on fear of the other and plain prejudice.
PHILIP HARVEY | 03 August 2011

True, "debate" about a person's right to dress more or less modestly says more about the debaters than about the modest dressers. If we're so concerned about immigrant behaviour, and how it might affect our 'liberal' secular society, then we would do well to ensure that primary education is free, secular, compulsory and universally available.

The greatest determinant of childrens' general outlook is not their parents, it is the inculcation into the broader culture that they acquire from their peers during their early years of socialisation. After all, it is from among their peers that they will eventually choose the individual with whom they will create their own family.

To the extent that this is a comment on parents' right to choose how and to what extent their children are educated, so be it. Parenthood does not give carte blanche to restrict their child's progress in the broader society; rather, parenthood is a sacred duty to best prepare their child to take up a place in that broader society, after the parent has ceased to exist.
David Arthur | 03 August 2011

While I agree with the sentiments in Tittensor's article, it is poorly argued, and hasn't supplied any cogent reason why we shouldn't debate the issue of burquas and niqabs. Face-covering in public is of general concern, as is the question of whether such apparel oppresses women, giving us at least two significant issues for public debate. You will often see Burquas in Sydney Road, and a question on many lips (not necessarily mine) is whether other radically conservative customs and attitudes might accompany them, and whether rising numbers of people holding these views are a cause for concern.

The only way to allay fears and discourage the proliferation of wrong information is by vigorous public debate, in the media and everywhere else. The issue is not one of vanity or freedom of speech, but of resolving cultural conflict before it gets toxic, and burquas and niqabs are, like it or not, a significant ingredient in that issue.
Garry Kinnane | 03 August 2011

This article was written by a male and the experiment (ha ha) was initiated by a male. Australian women don ot like the burqua because it is denigrating to women and signified a man's dominance in the married staate. As well, many women who wear the burqua are paid to do so. Check that out. Australian women query why womenhave to be covered up. It does not dictate this procedure in the Koran.

This is a Christian country with Christian ideals. If Moslems do not want to adopt our standards, then they shouldn't be here. I know if I go into Iran etc, I have to wear a burqua and they cost $300 each. That's the law. Our law is different and women should not be covered up and it should be illegal for them to wear such a frightening kind of dress.
Shirley McHugh | 03 August 2011

Thank you David for this article...challenging us to see the reality of this issue. Received an ugly email about the census yesterday 'threatening' me I could have a mosque in my neighbourhood if I didn't tick "Christian'. Some of your comments I will recycle to those who sent it to me.Thank you.
Denise Christensen | 03 August 2011

Eureka Street appears to like running article about the way Muslims dress. While it may be worthy of debate, I would like to see articles on weightier topics related to Islam and the West.

For example an article posted on Eureka Street not long ago looked at the treatment of homosexuals in Muslim lands. This was timely as there is growing concern in Western countries at the rising violence against gays and lesbians in Muslim majority areas.

Further, why has there not been an article dealing with the recent flogging meted out to a Muslim convert just because he drank alcohol?

I welcome David's call for open debate, but he seems to assume that understanding something will automatically lead to acceptance of it, and unity. Sometimes we may find that when we understand something we reject it. We may find a gulf exists between our culture and another.

If another culture challenges us to better behaviour and thinking, then we should accept the correction in humility and gratitude. However, if we judge another culture to be barbaric or cruel in some aspect, then we should challange it. Most importantly, we should be prepared to defend ourselves against its.
Patrick James | 03 August 2011

If 1900 is less than o.oooo3% of the French population, the French population must be more than six thousand million. I am inclined to doubt this.
Gavan | 03 August 2011

I've often thought that the debate about the niqab/burqa seems to me to be largely hypothetical - I have only ever seen a woman in a burqa once, and niqab maybe twice. Anecdotal, I know - but this article provides evidence of the small numbers involved (Gavan, I think your numbers are wrong - there are around 62.5 million people in France, and 0.00003 per cent of that is 1875).

Yet I can understand some concerns about faces being obscured. There is a reason motorcycle helmets, balaklavas and masks are not permitted in petrol stations, banks etc. Such face coverings make identifying people difficult, which is of particular significance when there is a crime. I felt for the police officer involved in the incident you mentioned in your article - particularly after allegations of his behaviour were proven false. That Carnita Matthews' appeal was upheld on the basis of non-identity is troublesome.

MBG | 03 August 2011

MBG, no, my numbers are not wrong. You and David Tittesor are talking about the proportion, not the percentage. A proportion is one hundredth of a percentage. For example, a half, or 0.5, is 50%.
Gavan | 04 August 2011

As a woman I entirely disagree with the argument exposed on this article regarding debating the fact as to weather the burqa has a place in the Australian society.In most cases I am all for respecting diversity and multiculturalism in Australia, but I find the vision of a woman wearing a burqa or niqab and what it represents extremely threatening for it equals to the repression, low self esteem and powerlessness, that a woman is still held in, and it should not be allowed in a modern democratic country like Australia which fosters equality, equal opportunity and freedom. Surely those are the reasons why these people come to this country, and those opportunities should also be for the women, and the women of this country should not have to deal with the obvious repression their sisters are held in.

Wearing modest dress does not have to mean hiding one's face in shame which is only for the benefeit of the males.

This is a debate that needs to be addressed, if Australians go to a Moslem country they need to abide by their laws and rules, and we as a country have every right to expect the people that come into our country to do the same and respect our rules and laws not bring and try to forse theirs on us.
Maria Prestinenzi | 05 August 2011

Maybe we should consider debate on banning sun hats & massive fashion sunglasses particularly if worn in combination as these conceal the face and prohibit any form of eye contact.

Angela | 05 August 2011

When did the French population grow out to 6,300,000,000 ?
George Keenan | 05 August 2011

Great article and very cool vid!
spiritedcrone | 07 August 2011

Simply put this type of head dress depicts an oppressed society. We might be heading there. however not just yet!

Migrants having been allowed in this wonderful country, should "sit up, shut up, and do what the society demands contribute to your keep or go.

Trevor J Bates | 08 August 2011

Neither sunhats nor sunglasses are expressions of cultural difference, or are required by one gender to be worn by another. It is the cultural and gender implications of burquas and niquabs that concern many people, not eye contact, which is in fact possible with burquas and niquabs. In certain public situations, you can be asked to remove hats and dark glasses for purposes of identification.
Garry Kinnane | 08 August 2011

As an Australian Muslim woman, I feel it is significant that the views of Muslim women seem not to have been considered by your correspondents. I have been involved in the Muslim community for over 20 years, and I have yet to see any Muslim woman wearing a burqa in Australia.

The wearing of niqab seems to have picked up a bit since Fred Nile started his 'ban the burqa' campaign but very few Muslim women wear niqab either. I have yet to meet a Muslim women who was forced by her husband, still less paid, to wear it, but I have met some who wore niqab in defiance of their husband's wishes.

I wish non-Muslim commentators would stop categorising Muslim women as poor, ignorant and oppressed. And by the way, you do not have to wear a burqa in Iran. A simple headscarf, which you can bring from home, is enough.
Jamila Hussain | 12 August 2011

What is the point of this article? That we shouldn't have a debate on the Burga because it is, in the opinion of the author, "pointless and vain." Tittensor's problem basically is the existence of the debate itself. If one is against having debates that one takes to be "pointless and vain" then one is not in favour of free speech. A curious position for a "centre for dialogue" to publicly uphold.

There are many in our society that feel alienated by multiculturalism. Why doesn't the "centre for dialogue" seek to engage in dialogue with them too, rather than publicly argue that a debate should be shut down because it is "pointless and vain?" It seems that dialogue is for Muslims, no matter how bigoted, extremist and racist but not for Aussie Joe Six Pack.
Markob | 20 August 2011

Muslim women should have there rights to wear whatever they want!! In Arab countries, why does the government let Christians and non Muslims have there rights huh?? Australia is a multi cultural country and Muslim women respect the law, do the right thing and don't get in trouble cops!! So let them have there freedom!!
Hussein dennaoui | 16 August 2012

I think that in certain areas such as hospitals, banks, schools court houses government buildings,motorcyclists have to take their helmets off in banks and hospitals We control the clothing that bikies wear who cares how many are wearing them that’s not the issue, but why exclude foreign people from our laws that we all have to abide by if they don’t like our laws go home pretty simple
Shannon | 23 August 2018

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