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Babette Francis, May 29, 2010

Well, it has taken two white men, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Senator Cory Bernardi of South Australia, to call for the freeing of Muslim women imprisoned in their burqas, that voluminous head-to-toe black (or blue) garment which covers the wearer completely, leaving only a small slit for the eyes.

Credit should also be given to the Belgian government which has banned the burqa, and to clerics at Al-Azhar University in Egypt who have suggested that female students should not wear burqas on campus. I am not sure whether this latter recommendation has been implemented, but it is commendable that a Muslim university, the second oldest in Egypt — and one whose history as a madrassa goes back to 970 — has taken an enlightened view.

Contrary to the views of our multicultural and diversity devotees, the burqa is not merely a cultural artefact: it involves the imprisonment of women, not behind bars, but in a “tent” made of cloth. Actually, women imprisoned in a conventional jail may enjoy more freedom than women imprisoned in burqas. The former, when let out of their cells for exercise, can enjoy a breeze on their faces and hair, and the sun on their faces, arms and legs. Women in burqas frequently suffer from vitamin D deficiency — and all the associated bone ill-health — because they experience little or no sunlight. Women in burqas cannot play sport and are impeded in running, cycling and driving. Swimming, except in exclusive baths and at very restricted times, is impossible.

But far worse than the physical restrictions is the psychological imprisonment. Just as female genital mutilation (also forbidden by clerics at Al Azhar University) is a physical mutilation, the wearing of the burqa is a psychological and social mutilation of women. It cuts them off from the world in which they live, it leaves them unable to make face-to-face contact with “outsiders” or even friends, or to know that others have seen their smiles.

I am amazed that Western feminists have not called for a ban on the burqa, and that it has been left to white males to attempt to eliminate this system of female oppression. Do feminists hate Western values so much that they are prepared to ignore this most visible practice of female disadvantage which actually makes its hapless wearers “invisible”?

Feminists complain vociferously that women are sometimes ignored by bank managers or salesmen who turn to the husbands accompanying them as if the men make all the decisions. Why haven’t feminists spoken out on behalf of the women imprisoned in burqas who perforce remain silent at all such professional, business and social encounters?

I have lived in Muslim-majority provinces in India before the 1947 Partition, and know first hand that those wearing the burqa (in India known as purdah) have no fun. I remember when we were children, the games and laughter with my young Muslim girl friends — silenced when they reached puberty and disappeared into purdah.

During the apartheid era of racial discrimination in South Africa, that country was not allowed to participate in the Olympic Games or other international sporting events. Why are men from those Muslim countries, which forbid their women to participate in sport in public, allowed to participate in the Olympic Games and other international sporting events? Isn’t sexist exclusion from sport just as bad as racist exclusion? Participation in sport is not only a matter of playing games, but of health. The health of women is damaged if they cannot move freely in the open, but are imprisoned within voluminous tents of cloth.

I have written to Kevin Gosper, Australia’s representative on the Olympic Committee, that “sanctions” should be imposed on Muslim countries which bar their women from participating in sport on the same basis as their men, but so far have had little response.

Predictably, Senator Bernardi has been criticised by the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Mr Ikebal Patel, who described his suggestion of banning the burqa as “irrational and un-Australian”. But I agree with Senator Bernardi. It is not just the issue of bandits hiding within burqas — but of freeing innocent women from atrocious constraints.

If Senator Bernardi’s suggestion was implemented, we could hear more clearly the presently muffled voices of those imprisoned in burqas, and maybe even see them enjoy our beaches. What could be more Australian than that?

Babette Francis is Australian and international co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc., an NGO having special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC).



Member Organisation, World Council for Life and Family

NGO in Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC of the UN