By LEILA SAFARI: Australia has always embraced its multicultural society. But could a ban on Islamic face coverings ever come into force in this nation, like it has in France.
It’s viewed by many in the Western world as a symbol of oppression, and a sign of degradation of women by their male family members. Countless dimensions have clustered around the various types of Muslim head covering issues including the matter of religious freedom, female equality, and secularity in our modern-day world.
But a Sydney youth is determined to debate this view.
Soummaya Haydar, a 21 year old university student currently in her third year of Global Religion studies at the University of New South Wales, describes herself as ‘blessed’ to wear the Hijab – a type of head cover. She defines herself as a ‘proud’ and fortunate member of Australian society.
“I’m so lucky in this wonderful nation of ours to be able to freely carry this beautiful symbol of decency and modesty on my head,” she said.
Ms Haydar organises a fortnightly women-only gathering including Muslims and non-Muslims at her university to discuss current issues and participate in general enjoyable activities.
“There’s arts and crafts, attending Mosque fairs together, and the overall female participation is a great relief and de-stressor from everyday life at uni.”
Hijab is the Arabic word for a veil, and is a covering which conceals the head and neck of a woman and leaves the face clear; it comes in a myriad of colours in which women are free to choose from.
But the issue in Australia – and Europe alike – propels more deeply than just the hijab. It concerns the burqa and niqab – both of which cover the entire face, but with the niqab leaving only a slit in the eye area for the woman to see through.
Daniel Nalliah, President of Rise Up Australia political party, was resolute to share his strong views on the burka and niqab.
He said the Western nations are increasingly prone to the problems attached to immigration as he advocates for the “need to adapt and not expect us to adapt to their way of life.”
“I think it’s important that they [immigrants] integrate into the Australian way of life and become a part of the country,” he said as he described his perception to the way people wear the face veil as hostile and unfriendly.
But Ms Haydar is inimical with the impression that Mr Nalliah conveys.
“I have very close family members who chose to wear the niqab as they say it gives them a sense of power, and control,” she said.
But still the question remains. Why do women wear the veil cover?
“My mother once said to me that a woman is a precious gem in a treasure box, and that it then must remain concealed because of its priceless nature,” Ms Haydar expressed through this short and lively anecdote.
For Ms Haydar the veil is nothing more than a type of dress that some women choose to wear.
“I don’t wear it, the face cover, but I don’t see a problem with women who choose to wear it either.”
Whilst Ms Haydar advocates for the way the various head and face coverings promote identity in women, Mr Nalliah campaigns against it as he believes the “West is losing its identity day-by-day, month-by-month, year-by-year,” by allowing the face veil to be integrated into Australian culture.
Looking at all this, a question seamlessly forms in the mind: Could a burka and niqab ban be successfully implemented in Australia?
One thing is for sure, it’s clear the matter is controversial. So a look at how France implemented such a ban will provide some great insight into this insistent question.
France in 2004 saw the parliament place a cemented ban on hijabs in all public schools – excluding universities. Then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, saw it as a measure to enhance the long standing secular nature of the nation, and to not place religious emphasis on “impressionable” school kids.
Mr Nalliah resonates well with this perspective put forward by France, as his extensive work with various departments in the United States echoes the nation’s stance.
“… the reason the majority of French politicians voted in favour of banning of the veil was because, particularly the girls who lived in suburbs which were dominated by Muslims, if they did not cover their head and walk on the streets they were getting spat at or mocked. And it became such a problem within the country that they decided to ban it all together.”
This didn’t sit well with Ms Haydar.
“If it’s a secular nation, shouldn’t everyone be free to express themselves in whatever way in public. Especially young kids in public schools.”
Nevertheless, the issue advanced further into the disputed unknown.
In 2011, France banned the burka in all public places as it was claimed that such a covering prevented easy identification of an individual. It was the first European country to ban the full face Islamic veil, and did so because President Sarkozy said the veils oppress women and “aren’t welcome” in France. Under the ban, any woman, French or foreign, who left their private residences with their faces hidden ran the risk of a 150 euro fine, and imminent “instruction on citizenship’’.
Ms Haydar questioned the restriction of freedom on French Muslim residents. “Being given a fine because of what you’re wearing is somewhat of a backward-notion.” France’s decade-long history on the matter of the veil doesn’t seem to settle well with her. “I just can’t see anything like this implemented into Australian law.”
The 1960s and 1970s essentially produced a 10 year bout where there was a large Muslim immigration into France for labour work. Mr Nalliah refers to this time as a “problem” for France. “We are at the steeping stages of a problem that essentially started about 30 years ago in France,” he said in reference to Muslim immigration into the nation. “So I believe that we should not wait for something to come to that level of maturity and then find it, I think, a problem to undo.” He vouches for the opportunity Australia has to ban the burka and niqab before it gets “out-of-control” like, he believes, foreign customs and traditions have in France. “I think they’re too far gone. I wonder whether they’ll be able to rescue France anymore.”
France doesn’t have an exact percentage figure of the Muslim population in the nation as French law forbids distinguishing citizens or residents according to their faith. But Australia has a plethora of statistics and polls on Muslim populations and immigration.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the latest census on religion matters that was conducted in 2011, shows that a meagre 2.2 per cent of Australians recognise with the Islamic religion. That’s quite a small minority considering the population of Australia is upwards of 22 million people.
A Roy Morgan poll conducted in October last year showed a slightly different frame of view. Of the 3,740,000 million people in Sydney that were asked the question of whether a law banning the wearing of clothing in public that fully covers the face – like the burka – should be welcomed, a staggering 53 per cent said ‘yes’. That’s more than half the total number of people surveyed. To add another dimension, the poll asked whether the individual is ‘concerned about Islam in the world today’. Of the same amount of people mentioned above in Sydney, a concerning 52 per cent agreed.
So should a ban on face coverings like the burka and niqab come into force in Australia?
“Why should women be banned from wearing whatever they please in Australia, in a multicultural land that we, and many others from all different cultures, proudly call home.” The firm statement lingered with her for a while as she fought the idea in her head of a clothing ban in the nation. Ms Haydar then went on, “Harmony day activities throughout the years in school taught us tolerance, acceptance, and peace. So why should we take all that pride in a sense of multiculturalism away from us Australian citizens.”
Before we go any further, the difference between multicultural and multiethnic must be discussed. The former is the concept that a variety of different ethnic groups interact while maintaining their distinct cultural practices. The latter refers to members of different ethnic groups interacting whilst also conforming under a common structure or format.
Mr Nalliah was adamant in his stance in opposition of the notion of multiculturalism. “We embrace multi ethnic Australia, my country of birth cannot be changed, but I have to sacrifice the path of my culture in order to become a part of Australia. So we believe in a multi-ethnic Australia – one culture.” The president of the Rise Up Australia political party went on to express his desire for the West to take a firm stance on the matter of multiculturalism, “The time has come that if you don’t stand up now, that our sons and daughters and generations to come will reap what we have sewn, and the Western nations will no longer enjoy the blessings and things we have received so far.”
Whatever the future holds, Australia has always advocated its pride in embracing a variety of different cultures under one roof. Would a ban on the Islamic face veil be beneficial for the nation in the long-run? Well that elusive question still remains. If Australia looks up to its European friends across the oceans, and heeds notions from groups like Rise Up Australia, then we may well see this type of law in-force in Australia.
Front page image of women in black coloured niqabs: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01927/burkaSUM_1927572b.jpg
The two photos showing different style of Islamic veils: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/05/europe_muslim_veils/html/2.stm
Graph from the ABS: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/2071.0main+features902012-2013
Hijab ‘Rights’ sign held by young female protestor: http://www.youngchicagoauthors.org/girlspeak/images/hijab.jpg