Here We Go Again… This Time It's Burqa Bandits


Un-Australian. It’s a term that makes an appearance when a scapegoating is underway — and of course, all too often, the most convenient scapegoat is Muslim.

Last week, Senator Cory Bernardi initiated yet another round of what feels an awful lot like a ritual. He called for a ban on the burqa on the grounds that it is a security hazard, a symbol of "the repressive domination of men over women", that it "compromises some of the most important aspects of human communication", and — drumroll — that it’s "un-Australian".

And so the cycle was completed — comments from politicians, journalists, and community leaders, talkback argy-bargy, letters to the editor, comments stacking up throughout the blogosphere. Tony Abbott said that Bernardi’s views did not reflect Coalition policy, but gave a ritualistic blast of the dog-whistle by summoning the ghost of conservative prime ministers past: "there is understandable concern in the community about what former prime minister John Howard called a confronting form of attire." And Keysar Trad weighed in, saying that the burqa actually encouraged women to integrate into Australian society.

So here I am, wearily embarking on my contribution to the proceedings. It just seems un-Australian to let Cory Bernardi go unchallenged.

Bernardi’s blog post — which was later republished by several media outlets — calling for a burqa ban was prompted by police reports of an armed robbery by a cross-dressing burqa bandit, who had held up a cash-distributor at gunpoint in Sydney’s south. This single incident of a criminal wearing a burqa, rather than a ski mask or a pair of panty-hose over the head, was enough for Bernardi to describe the burqa as "emerging as the preferred disguise of bandits and ne’er-do-wells".

The term "burqa" has become synonymous with any form of Islamic face-veil, so exactly what the burqa-bandit was wearing isn’t immediately apparent, beyond the fact that it covered his face. It doesn’t seem likely that he was wearing a "shuttlecock burqa" — the tent-like robe with a netting-covered slit for the eyes that received international notoriety after the Taliban made it mandatory in Afghanistan.

The police report describes the Sydney armed robber as wearing "a full black burqa with a slit for the eyes, and sunglasses".

If that means a full-length robe, then I have to give the burqa bandit full marks for manual dexterity. Islamic outfits involving face-covering are voluminous and unwieldy. I wore a chador in Pakistan in the fraught weeks after 9/11 (although I usually left my face uncovered) and I had enough trouble finding my own cash. I would have had no success in stealing anybody else’s valuables, and if I’d tried to wield a pistol, the only person in danger of being shot would have been me. If the burqa bandit has found a more user-friendly alternative, he might have a lucrative career in the fast-growing business of Islamic sportswear.

There have been additional incidents overseas as well as robbery in which Islamic-style face-veils have been worn by criminals — but it is still a long way from qualifying as a "preferred disguise". And burqas do not cause the actual crime — surely, the burqa-bandit’s most important trade accessory is the pistol. As teenagers, a friend and I cowered in terror in a dark carpark as a man wearing a ski-mask masturbated in front of us, but it never crossed our minds to call for a ban on ski-masks. If he hadn’t been wearing a ski-mask, he would have been wearing — well, probably not a burqa, but a stocking over the head, or a paper bag with eye-slits, or anything else that would have allowed him to cover his face while revealing his genitals.

There are legitimate questions to be resolved about access to spaces such as banks where other forms of face-covering — Bernardi and others cite motorcycle helmets — are prohibited. The rationale behind wearing a bike helmet and wearing a face-veil are quite different. Bernardi could relax and just remove his helmet — the statistics on motor vehicle accidents in banks are nothing to be alarmed about. Asking a woman to remove her face-veil is a more complex issue. Banks are, however, commercial entities that are capable of safeguarding their security while negotiating harmonious relationships with customers, regardless of their dress.

And having constructive conversations about when and how to ask a face-veiled woman to verify her identity is made infinitely more difficult by raucous contributions from the likes of Bernardi, who use "security concerns" as a prelude to a rant about "our" values and those who fail to conform to them. Face-veiling is practiced by a minority of Muslim women in Australia, most of whom regard the practice as unnecessary at best and harmful at worst. But Bernardi’s dog-whistling demand for "un-Australian" elements to fall into line puts us all on the defensive.

We feel obligated to point out that burqa bans in Western democracies undermine campaigns for women in societies like Iran and Saudi Arabia to have the right to unveil, because it reinforces the claim that governments are entitled to regulate women’s dress.

We respond to Bernardi’s depiction of the burqa as the chosen dress-code of "newcomers" by telling him that a disproportionate number of women who veil their faces in Australia are converts, and that others are the Australian-born daughters of Muslim families in which the mother has never covered. In Cronulla riot slogan language, these are not women who flew here — they grew here.

And as for "newcomers", just who is Senator Bernardi to tell them what is and is not "Australian"? We would add that Muslim women face a range of challenges within their communities, ranging from gender violence to lack of formal community representation, and that burqa rows are really a sideshow to those more important issues.

And what a sideshow. Bandits dressing up in burqas, Cory Bernardi dressing up as Bronwyn Bishop … okay, so he hasn’t got as far as the beehive hairdo, but that seems to be where he’s heading. But sideshow though it is, it’s a damaging sideshow, because it causes people to close ranks rather than address genuine areas of concern. And Muslim women have trouble making themselves heard above the din.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.