There’s been a song popping into my head during the past few days. It’s the Talking Heads song Once In A Lifetime. You know the one (ahem…if you remember music from 1981). It’s been happening since the insane idea emerged to ban the burqa – more accurately, the niqab – from Parliament, relegating women wearing it to the same gallery as rowdy school children.
Once In A Lifetime features the lines, “And you may ask yourself, ‘Well…How did I get here?'”
How on earth did we get here? What led us to this point?
It certainly wasn’t the frequency of visits to Parliament by women wearing the niqab – there have been precisely none. Zero. Zilch. Visits to Parliament by those wearing helmets or religious robes are likely more frequent and even then, Parliament is subject to airport-level security.
But I digress.
It is more likely that this latest affront to the Muslim community is simply part of a larger ‘war’, the war Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared on the threat of terror here in Australia and the terror perpetrated abroad by ISIS.
Whilst we have seen graphic footage that proves ISIS do not hesitate to crucify, rape or capture their victims, there appears to be scant proof of wrongdoing by those arrested via recent terror raids across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. So little information has been made available about exactly what, if anything, they were planning. Few have been charged.
However, just enough information has been released via breathless, hysterical and at times, downright inaccurate reporting to make us all nervous. We view the person next to us with suspicion; we report men of Middle Eastern appearance using mobile phones in what we think is a ‘suspicious’ manner at a footy game.
Under the guise of fighting some sort of near and present danger, our Government and main stream media are very successfully playing on our fear of the other.
That fear is manifesting itself as racism and xenophobia; there have been random attacks on mosques, Muslims’ property and worst of all, physical attacks on Muslims themselves.
The Government claims that the terror raids and their beefed up terror laws aren’t about any particular religion, however at the moment it certainly seems that way.
We like to think we’re a secular nation, where religion and law don’t mix. Yet we seem to be able to let religion in when it suits us – prayer in Parliament, for example – and keep it out when it doesn’t, where dress, such as the niqab, reflects a person’s faith.
Tony Abbott, a deeply religious Catholic, finds the niqab confronting, yet Mary the mother of Jesus is often portrayed in religious art wearing something much like a hijab, modestly covering her hair. Does he find Mary in her ‘hijab’ confronting, too? Or nuns in their veils or habits confronting? Somehow I think not. They don’t wear the niqab, but it’s still quite the double standard.
Our problems here are our double standards and hypocrisy: we promote multiculturalism and freedom of religion, but these seem only to apply when it suits us. ‘Standard’, non-threatening religious practice that is familiar is OK, but stuff that makes us uncomfortable?
Please do that somewhere else. Go and sit in that glass cube if you turn up to Parliament wearing a niqab. Go build your mosques elsewhere.
For migrants living in our community, religion and culture are very closely intertwined. This is the case for my own community. Religion affects social customs, diet, marriage, dress and more.
Places of worship are often places of community. So when we invite others to express their culture among us, that means expressing their religion, too, whether we like it or not.
Although we mouth words about freedom of religion in Australia, we are only comfortable with freedom of religion if we don’t feel threatened by it in some way.
Even worse, we see ourselves in a position to make judgements about the woman behind the niqab. ‘She must be under the thumb of her husband.’ ‘Oh, how primitive.’ ‘Oh, how awful.’ We feel sorry for the women we perceive are imprisoned in their clothing; we want freedom for them.
But it’s our kind of freedom, freedom on our terms imposed on women who, for all we know, are free to dress as they do…until we tell them not to, that is. What right do we have to do dictate to them, or to claim we are a free country, if the freedom we grant is limited to whatever soothes our sensibilities?
The irony of all of this is that whilst the niqab and other head coverings are tarred with the brush of oppression and we are concerned about the freedom of Muslim women who wear them, we are seemingly unconcerned about the women and children experiencing oppression in our own communities. They are of all races, religions and backgrounds. They are victims of domestic violence.
Surveys show that anywhere from one quarter to one third, and even up to one half of Australian women will experience physical or sexual violence by a man at some point in their lives that’s real, daily emotional and physical torment. Where is our concern for their freedom?
Where is our concern for the woman killed every week in Australia by a current or former partner? Our domestic violence statistics are the truly terrifying numbers here.
Domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury in women under 45. The number of people killed by terrorists in Australia so far this year: none. The number killed by domestic violence: one a week on average and six over the Easter period alone. A family of five died last month in an act of domestic violence. The latest incident that we know of occurred just days ago.
The 2014 Budget included cuts to legal aid and refuges, directly affecting victims of domestic violence. These are real people, real numbers and real lives lost, yet we are spending millions – and want to spend more – chasing shadows in the war on terror.
The uproar recently in reaction to the ‘burqa ban’ announcement was heartening. I hope that our fearless opposition to hypocrisy, misplaced priorities, draconian attitudes and divisive politics continues, especially on issues of basic human rights.
Everyone has the right to be free: to live free from violence and fear and to practice religion and culture freely.