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Do we ban the nun's veil next?

  • 24 August 2017


For an item of clothing that virtually no Australian Muslims wear, the burqa sure gets plenty of airtime. I've never seen the (usually blue) all-enveloping cloak with the small material grill for sale in any of the bricks-and-mortar Islamic clothing stores I've visited. Short of travelling to Afghanistan, the only place I can think where an anti-Islam protester might get one is by searching Halloween costume listings on eBay or Etsy.

That’s what the Afghan burqa, or chadri, has become—a fetishised symbol to mock Muslims. Imagine a politician walking into the Australian parliament dressed up in a nun’s habit, or wearing sidelocks and a felt hat, or in blackface wearing a loincloth and tribal body paint. When these items of religious and cultural dress—almost inevitably cheap, counterfeit versions—are donned by non-adherent members of the dominant racial group their meanings are spoiled and transformed into stigma symbols. Stripped of their natural context, they become emblems that mark a minority group as being worthy of ostracism, disgust, pity, and ridicule.

Muslim veiling practices have long been the subject of Western fascination and loathing even before colonialists dominated Oriental lands. Nineteenth-century French photographers in Algeria hired women, most likely prostitutes, to attend their studios and dress up in traditional face-veils, jewellery and dresses, but with their breasts exposed.

The postcards were then sold to other Westerners in what was a very lucrative business. They were an artificial construction reflecting the imagination of the colonialists, as were the harem paintings of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who never even set foot in the Middle East, or Hollywood’s chiffon-veiled belly-dancers of the studio era.

Ironically, vast numbers of Muslims were initially keen to embrace Westernisation in the first half of the twentieth century. As a growing middle-class emerged, women and men adopted the French and British modes of dressing. Men put away their turbans and cloaks, shaved their beards, and put on suits. Women took off their headcovers and face-veils and wore skirts and blouses along with fashionable hairstyles.

People in black and white photographs of mid-twentieth-century Cairo, Tehran, Kabul or Istanbul wouldn’t be out of place in London, Paris, New York or Sydney. Iran and Turkey even banned traditional dress for both men and women, with Iran’s Reza Shah proclaiming: 'Westerners now wouldn’t laugh at us' and ordered men to wear bowler hats.

But as disenchantment grew with forced Westernisation and secularisation, both at the hands of dictatorial Muslim rulers, as