So Senator Hanson turned up in the Senate chamber dressed in a burqa. To be clear, I don’t think she was making a point about the plight of women in Islam. Rather I suspect – along with George Brandis – that she was engaging in a cheap stunt to make a political point about Muslims. Quite rightly, he called her out on it. But I completely disagree with what he said at this point of his comments:
Senator Hanson, for the last four years, I have had responsibility pre-eminently among the ministers subject to the Prime Minister for national security policy. And I can tell you, Senator Hanson, that it has been the advice of each director-general of security with whom I have worked and each commissioner of the Australian Federal Police with whom I have worked that it is vital for their intelligence and law-enforcement work that they work cooperatively with the Muslim community. And to ridicule that community, to drive it into a corner, to mock its religious garments is an appalling thing to do and I would ask you to reflect on what you have done.
I have no doubt that what he said is factually correct – but nonetheless we are led to believe that our national security is reliant on the subjugation of (some) Muslim women.* There are many aspects of religious practice that are troubling in a liberal democracy. The burqa is one such practice – now I understand that there are arguments suggesting that the burqa isn’t a religious requirement for Muslim women. Okay. The fact of the matter is that the practice of wearing a burqa is widespread amongst Muslim women. The far more important issue is why they wear them.
If Muslim women voluntarily wore the burqa then there is no problem – people can more or less wear what they like in our society. I have no doubt that many Muslim women do voluntarily choose to wear the burqa or similar garments. I am more confident of this being the case in liberal democracies than not. What does become a problem is when women do not voluntarily wear the burqa. Now we have an information problem: how we tell the difference between the two cases? Where do we err? Do we suppress the rights of women who want to wear the burqa, or do we tolerate that some women are being coerced in what we hope is a free and open society?
These are troubling questions – Senator Hanson is, I suspect, uninterested in those questions and Senator Brandis should have stopped his answer by saying:
We have about 500,000 Australians in this country of the Islamic faith. And the vast majority of them are law-abiding, good Australians. Senator Hanson, it is absolutely consistent with being a good, law-abiding Australian and being a strict, adherent Muslim.
Paul Kelly in the Weekend Australian makes a bad mistake while pointing out that Senator Hanson was wrong in what she did.
Hanson’s stunt in the Senate was appalling for two reasons — it was an abuse of parliament (which should review its guidelines in relation to religious garments) and it mocked Islam as a faith, since Hanson is not a Muslim and was seeking, in effect, to denigrate the wearing of the burka. This event must not be repeated.
So far, so good. But then:
No senator should be allowed into the chamber dressed in that way. No senator should be allowed to speak without the chamber first knowing their identity by sight.
That is itself Senator Hanson’s argument; if no person can enter the Senate dressed like that, why should they walk in street dressed like that, and so on. It should not be repeated because it was profoundly disrespectful to a large group of law-abiding citizens.
* This is also the argument that Tony Abbott and George Brandis used to renege on their promise to repeal s18c.