The burqa debate: lifting the veil on Islamophobia in Australia

Following the national news and social media over the last fortnight, one might be led to believe that women wearing burqas and niqabs are as significant a threat to Australia's security as the alarming number of young men who have been caught by the spell of ISIS.

The burqa kerfuffle seemed to escalate when Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi woke up to the news of anti-terror operations in Sydney and saw pictures of a veiled woman outside the raided houses. He responded on Twitter by referring to the burqa as a "shroud of oppression and flag of fundamentalism".

 Photo: Peter Macdiarmid

Presumably Bernardi saw different news footage from me, as the woman displayed prominently in news photographs that I saw was wearing the niqab. The niqab is a face-covering veil, worn by a very small number of Australian Muslims, which leaves open a slit for the eyes. The burqa, on the other hand, even more rarely worn, has mesh covering the eyes.

Whatever Bernardi saw or meant, his comments unleashed yet another firestorm of Islamophobia on its most fertile breeding ground: the internet.

Last week, after Bernardi's comments, I was interviewed by the ABC for an explanatory article on the burqa, the niqab, and my choice of garment, the hijab, which covers only a woman's hair, neck and shoulders.

Bizarrely, when posted by the ABC on Facebook, the article received more comments than the ABC's reports on the anti-terror raids themselves. The comments section is sobering reading for anyone with any doubts about the perniciousness of Islamophobia in Australia.


To give one example from among the comments, a self-described "maintenance planner" for Fortescue Metals Group in Perth stated: "It's Australia you came here for whatever reasons embrace our culture" [sic], and asked why minorities should be allowed to "influence our awesome country".

Twitter is another haven for Islamophobia. The ABC tweeted the article, accompanying it with the question "Why do some women wear the burqa, niqab or hijab?"  A real estate agent from Frankston, Victoria, responded "Cause they are butt ugly".

This real estate agent is one of over 800 on Twitter who openly follow a self-described mother, psychology student and cat lover from Perth, who tweets almost daily with missives such as "It's time practicing Islam in Australia is outlawed and all that [sic] practice it are charged and prosecuted", and diatribes against Islam as a "cult" of violence and paedophilia.

This could all be ignored, and it would almost be amusing, if it were not for the fact that Islamophobia is increasingly affecting real people in their daily lives. Last week, a mosque in Brisbane was spray-painted with the words "Get the f--k out of our country!"  A teacher and a student at a Sydney school were reportedly threatened with a knife by an uninvited guest who asked whether it was a "Muslim school".

Even in Canberra, an enlightened and educated town, I have been harassed on the streets and in shopping malls, from Woden, to Belconnen to Civic. Sometimes it is no more than a snarling look from a passer-by; sometimes it is the muttering of an epithet such as "terrorist"; on two occasions it has amounted to physical intimidation.

This is the real and ultimate manifestation of Islamophobia. It is practiced a small group of Australians, no more representative of Australia than ISIS sympathisers are of Muslims, but their actions are making Muslims – and women in particular – fear for their safety.

The Islamophobic movement is not as small as we would wish. Nor is it hidden in the dark corners of the internet. Many online practitioners of Islamophobia can very easily be identified with full names, and their addresses and employers traced with a few short Google searches.

Of course, the rampant Islamophobia should not obscure the presence of plausible and considered critiques of the burqa and the niqab. They are worn by a small minority of Muslim women. Most Muslims consider the garments to be the result of an unnecessarily strict interpretation of the religion's modesty requirements, grounded more in culture than in the text of the Quran or the teachings of its principal prophet, Muhammad.

Those concerned with women's rights suggest, with some force, that some women might wear the burqa or the niqab due to oppression from male relatives, especially husbands. But this is not sufficient reason to ban the wearing of the garments. Where they are worn because of oppression, any ban would simply result in the women concerned remaining house‑bound, while women who wear the garments as a genuine personal choice would find their religious freedoms curbed by the state.

Laws banning the burqa or niqab in limited places, or requiring their removal for identification and security reasons, may have more merit. But it needs to be demonstrated that people wearing the garments pose a genuine security risk, and that the laws would be effective in addressing that risk. Without that justification, off-the-cuff calls by politicians to ban the garments, whether generally or in limited circumstances, do no more than inflame the internet hordes. The effect of this practice on Australian Muslims is real.

Dr Ismail is an Associate Lecturer in Middle East politics and Islamic studies at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.