More shade, please, in the ‘burqa’ debate

There used to be a convention at the seamier end of the pornography market whereby models would be de-identified by way of a dark strip across their eyes. The aim of this strip, presumably, was to protect the honour of the featured models – these being the days before the internet had made us all a little less chaste. Its effect, however, was strangely brutalising: denuded of her eyes – ‘the windows to the soul’, as Professor Marcus has it in The Ladykillers – the woman became, even more than before, a plaything of the male gaze: a piece of meat, in other words.

It occurred to me the other day – at the high point, or low point, of this latest round of multicultural (and multi-denominational) angst – that that little black strip, or proxy blindfold, was something like the visual inverse of the garb against which various pollies have taken in the last few weeks – not ‘the burqa’, as it is popularly called, but a combination of the hijab (head-covering) and niqab (face-covering) worn by Muslim women, usually in conjunction with a long dark robe. And not just the visual inverse, either, but the moral or political inverse, too. For surely it is the aim of such religious garments to deny the world any sense of the physical, or sexual, woman contained within them – to insist on the woman’s modesty, or chastity. With all but her eyes concealed from view, the woman is, literally, disembodied.

That the very conservatives who in days gone by would have railed against the influence of pornography now focus so obsessively on what is, in essence, a symbol of sexual negation must therefore count as an irony. It might even count as a kind of progress, though my strong suspicion is that the Cory Bernardis of the world are motivated less by women’s rights and a healthy attitude towards the human passions than they are by anti-Muslim prejudice and a sense that such religious displays bespeak a failure to ‘integrate’. Then, of course, there’s the fact that the niqab can be used to conceal both identity and weaponry, though even Tony Abbott seems to know where that particular objection goes: in the bulging box-file clearly marked ‘furphies’.

It’s easy to mock the social conservatives – easy and, I might add, necessary. However, the left’s approach to this issue, while well-intentioned, is often wrongheaded. Witness, for example, the appalled reaction to the PM’s comment of Wednesday last that while he did not favour banning ‘the burqa’, he did find the garment personally ‘confronting’. Bill Shorten had his finger on the pulse and set out his objections thus:

When migrants come to Australia, they pledge allegiance to Australia. They should leave their conflicts in their old countries. We have a system of law in Australia which everyone should sign up to. But having made those points, it is important in a liberal democracy, which Australia is, that we don’t make all minorities have to agree to everything, every cultural pattern, every requirement of the majority. We should be smart enough in this country to understand that if people have got religious practices, if they’ve got cultural habits, if they’ve got clothes that they wear, I think leadership involves not saying that that’s wrong, but rather just saying that’s the choices people make within that earlier framework.

Notwithstanding the impressionistic grammar, this is fairly representative of the position taken by many progressives – namely that wearing the niqab (and the burqa) is a matter of religious and cultural preference – that it is, in short, a matter of choice. But while we can all agree that choice in cultural and religious matters is crucial in a multi-ethnic democracy, I assume we can also agree – or can we? – that in cultural and religious matters individuals’ choices are sometimes restricted. Furthermore, I’m sure we can all agree that even when a choice is genuine it may be one that others find challenging. A woman who flashes her tits at the cricket for the benefit of her male admirers may be exercising a personal choice; but it’s not one of which most progressives would approve. Some may even find it ‘confronting’.

Why do we – good women and men of the left – insist on taking such an unsubtle view of the niqab and the subjugation it represents, whether actually or symbolically? No doubt it’s partly a response to the right – to those who would demonise the Muslim community or flirt with anti-Muslim sentiment in order to spook the Australian public. This approach is a largely pragmatic one. ‘Confronting’, we suspect, is code for ‘sinister’; at a time of dog-whistle politics, it is up to the left to defend minorities, even at the risk of ignoring attitudes that, should they present themselves in an all-white environment, would send most of us weeping to human resources.

But the real reason for the left’s confusion has to do with the dynamics of identity politics and what is known as ‘cultural relativism’ – the idea that all cultures are opaque to each other in a way that makes any criticism of ‘the other’ an act of de facto bigotry. This phenomenon is traceable to the disappearance of the sixties left into the universities, where a politics of ‘difference’ came to replace an emphasis on class and social justice. Suddenly, to criticise other cultures was to be guilty of a kind of cultural imperialism. As the British journalist Nick Cohen puts it, ‘If the dictatorial leaders of a foreign state or radical movement, or the usually unelected leaders of a “community” or religious group said that their culture demanded the oppression of women and homosexuals, for example, twentieth century liberals were tripped over by the thought that it was racist to oppose them.’

The problem, as Cohen implies, is that in suspending judgment and opening up one’s mind to ‘difference’ one can find oneself apologising for what are deeply conservative attitudes. And this problem is clearly magnified where issues of religion are at stake. Indeed, what we often see on the left is a sort of ideological version of the phenomenon known as the Stroop effect, in which the regions of the brain that recognise words interfere with those regions that recognise colour. Faced with a racial and religious minority, the left’s traditional anti-clericalism bumps up against its anti-racism and is eventually overridden by it. Mirroring the right, we treat minorities, not as complex and diverse communities whose ‘relations’ with the wider community are similarly complex and diverse, but as homogeneous blocks – as monolithic.

Referring to the many discussions she had about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, the great US journalist Barbara Ehrenreich – a socialist and a feminist – put the dilemma crisply: ‘One of the positions was that you can’t criticise gender relations in Saudi Arabia, because that’s “their” culture. But I’m not comfortable with a political outlook that says I can’t criticise what looks to me like gender apartheid.’ What goes for Saudi Arabia goes too for Australia. We can’t be against social conservatives in the white world and indulgent of them in the Muslim one. That would be to give up on the principles that define, or should define, our politics: the principles of equality and freedom, and of the essential bond between human beings, of whatever sex or ethnicity.

When conservatives talk about integration what they really mean is assimilation; true integration means learning from each other, not insisting that everyone who comes to Australia accommodate themselves to mainstream culture. But it also means being honest with each other and saying when we think a particular practice or attitude is ‘confronting’. To defer again to Ehrenreich: ‘There can be no left where the only politics is a narrow politics of identity. We have to defend multiculturalism, but let’s remember always that at its intellectual and moral core, the left isn’t multi-anything.’

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First published at New Matilda.