On Muslim women and dress

In a post I wrote quite recently I set out my fear that our Muslim communities might become demonised because of the Islamic State conflict that we are now involved in. I once spent ten days or so in Saudi Arabia, as a guest of the state, and returned to Australia quite glad that my wife had not been of the party. I did feel that the status of women there was low: a Saudi woman needed to be accompanied in public by a close male member of her family, she had to be dressed completely from head to toe, with only an eye-slit available for her to see where she was going, she could not legally drive a car in Saudi Arabia, and so on.

Saudi men seemed happy to congregate in our hotel to see Western women in the hotel swimming pool; I was not much impressed by the religious police, either, who carried staves and wandered about ensuring that shopkeepers observed the laws about prayer by closing their premises at the ordained times. I did understand that because Medina and Mecca, the  two holiest sites in Islam, were in the country, the Saudi regime felt that it had to be extremely correct in its laws and practices. But I felt conscious of repression, which was heightened when I was able to meet Saudi men and women socially in a informal setting, and people wore what they liked — until it was time to leave to go home.

Islam is an extraordinarily diverse religion, and in Australia Muslims have come from at least 70 countries, each seeing ‘Islam’ in its own cultural way. Successful religions learn how to adapt to the local customs in order to attract converts. So we non-Mulsim Australians need to see that diversity, and not imagine that there is one rule that applies to everyone in the faith, or that all Muslim women are repressed and kept locked up, uneducated and there just to breed. That is fantasy stuff, and bad for our society.

Then, a couple of days ago, I chanced on a fascinating exhibition that originated in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney — ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia’. It is about dress, and how a number of Muslim women in Australia felt the need to develop clothing that was modest, respected their  religion, and yet was attractive, made them feel happy, and used colour and textiles to catch the eye. I don’t think these clothes would be allowed in public in Saudi Arabia, unless things have changed in the fifteen years since I was there. But they work very well here, as the banner from the exhibition suggests.


Apart from the colour, and the long dresses, the most distinctive aspect of the women in the photograph is the head scarf or hijab, worn by all but one. I saw the exhibition in Wagga Wagga, and was fascinated by it. But you can visit  it online at the link above, and I think it is well worth the time spent. You can read interviews from each of the featured designers and models. Here is an extract from one: In my experience things are pretty calm for Muslims in Australia until something happens politically and in the news and then there’s this spike of reactions, generally against Muslim women first, because they are quite visible and the perception is that they are weak. Then after the spike things will go back to normal again, so it sort of follows this heartbeat graph. I think the standard misconception is that Muslim women are this silent oppressed group of people who don’t have a voice and very willingly submit to the men in their life, whether it be husbands and fathers or imams.

And from a second: I felt that if people were allowed in and welcomed into my life, they would better understand how a Muslim lives in Australia and how being Muslim and being Australian are a comfortable fit and that Islam is a part of every aspect of my life. 

And from a third: I don’t ever represent myself as the Muslim voice. I’m not speaking on behalf of a monolithic community and I suppose part of my writing is to reinforce the idea that there are many voices within Muslim communities. I also like to challenge people’s idea of what we mean when we say mainstream. Is a Muslim voice seen as some deviation from the norm, or can we accept that Muslim voices contribute to the mainstream space and are part of the mainstream? 

As I have written before, I am not religious at all, not a deist, a monotheist, or any kind of ‘believer’. And I am glad that I live in a secular society, where one is free to be a believer or not. Indeed, it would not surprise me if it proved to be the case that Muslims were freer in the expression of their religion in Australia, or in the USA, than they would be in an society in which Islam was the orthodoxy.

The ideas and views that emerge from this exhibition hearten me in my view that our kind of society, which brings in people from different backgrounds, and in time assimilates them through accepting some of of the newcomers’ practices and values, is the model for the world. And as for the head scarf and the burqa, you can see the Virgin Mary portrayed in comparable clothing in Renaissance paintings, and of course in my boyhood I did often see women dressed from top to toe in black with only small part of their face showing. They were called nuns.

It would be nice, in passing, if some of the Australian imams demonstrated the diversity of their faith by coming out strongly against the beheadings and cruelty exhibited by the ISIL fighters. Why should it all be left to Muslim women?

Join the discussion 48 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    “in my boyhood I did often see women dressed from top to toe in black
    with only small part of their face showing. They were called nuns.”

    Nuns showed somewhat more than a “small part” of their face. My recollection is that their garment covered about half or more their foreheads, their ears and their upper neck. Their facial features that distinguished their personalities were fully visible. It was very clear to me as a schoolboy who was Sister Elizabeth and who was Sister Patricia. I could always tell when my teacher was angry with me, when she was happy, when she was annoyed etc.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Maybe I’m wrong, and I was not brought up a Catholic. My memory is of the Ursuline sisters in Armidale NSW, whose faces were certainly visible, but a head scarf and a cowl around the neck (I think) kept the rest of the head obscured. I didn’t of course mean that they could see only through a horizontal slit at the eyes, as was the case in Saudi Arabia.

      • whyisitso says:

        I was taught by the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. Looking at a googled image (link below), certainly most of their foreheads were covered (not just over half as I said above). This order of nuns’ dress was fairly typically of most nuns in the forties and later.

        The habit (as the dress was called) were fairly accurately portrayed in the movie “The Sound of Music”.


        • tertius says:

          IMO there is no equivalence to be drawn between the dress of nuns and Muslim women. The former are a tiny minority of women who voluntarily join a religious order, the later are the entire female population of various Islamic communities or countries who have no choice about the degree of concealment expected of their clothing. That said, the fashionable clothing on display is indeed colourful and attractive. It is the the compulsory wearing of the burqa which is most offensive to traditions of democracy, freedom, individuality, and women’s rights.

          • Fay Thomson says:

            I feel intimidated by the burqa. As a person who has an acute hearing problem in both ears, one relies on the mouth and facial expression to interpret language. I feel a sinister quality when one sees the eyes only.

        • margaret says:

          I was taught by The Sisters of the Church. Mother Emily, the founder of the Order devoted the whole of her life to Christian (in this case, what was once called the Church of England), service of the poor and unemployed, of illegitimate children and orphans – the under-privileged.
          They wore nuns habits similar to the above, with a gathered wimple over their forehead which I’m sure at the end of the day must have left zigzag corrugations, they seemed so tight.

          Most of our classes were given by lay teachers but Sister Erima taught us Divinity which involved learning the catechism and woe betide if you were caught singing ‘It’s All in the Game’ with Gloria Rautamara from PNG, a boarder as were several from both there and the Solomon Islands. I was hauled into the office and given a very stern lecture about … (who knows and really who cared when one was 14 or 15)

          On the day you wrote this comment I happened to be watching The Sound of Music with my granddaughter. Even though Peggy Wood (Mother Abbess) was voiced over because her voice was unable to reach the high notes, her performance of Climb Every Mountain is stupendous and she epitomises the best of what religious lives can be. However, thankfully, they are a small minority of women many of whom I am sure were frustrated not so much sexually (although I’m sure that too), as in the strictures of society on their capable and intelligent minds.
          My point? Men in their position wore robes of freedom. When they donned hats they were hats of power and status. In Sydney when the Order was begun to assist the poor and to give girls the opportunity of education it was the bishops and priests of the Church of England that placed many obstacles in their way. Power and the status quo – that’s what it always comes down to in the fight for equality of opportunity.

  • Mike says:

    Don I think you have it very wrong about the garb of Catholic nuns I have seen many even though I wasn’t raised in any way by a religious order. I have never seen them cover the face in the same way that the burqa and the niqab does see picture.

    I object very strongly to this garb if Muslim women are quite content with being oppressed in this way that’s for them to decide but it is definitely a security issue. The face and body is completely obscured there is no way of knowing what is under the garment. You do not know what they are carrying you do not know whether they are male or female. We do not allow such concealment in public places for anything else so why these. For those think it’s okay how about you try going into a bank or a police station or into Parliament house completely covering just your head like this.

    Frankly the current favouritism shown by the left press particularly to Muslims and the vilification of Jews scares the hell out of me.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      None of the women in the photo in my post look like these ones. I said that I thought that what I saw in Saudi Arabia disturbed me. Different point.

      • Mike says:

        I don’t see a burqa or niqab in your photograph I only see hijab which I have no objection to it all. In terms of exposure of the face this is very similar to what nuns or sometime ago and very much like what Mother Teresa wore. But you compared the nuns dress to that of the burqa and that is totally incorrect. The dispute over Muslim dress is about concealment beyond that I don’t care what is worn.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Yes, I should have written more carefully. What I would like to have written is that in the case of nuns from the Renaissance onwards, virtually all of the body was concealed, and only the face was uncovered, and that did not include the forehead (see the photo below).

  • Dominic says:

    Don, I’m not overly concerned by women wearing the burka in Australia. It’s a free country, and people should be free to wear what they like. But, I emphasise the word ‘free’. I do not believe women in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and now especially in areas controlled by Islamic State are free not to wear the burka. And they’re not free because Islam is a patriarchal religion and as is so often the case with many religions, religious patriarchs gain and maintain power by dividing the sexes and controlling their interactions. It also helps if a pecking order is established, whereby the Imams hold sway over the community of men, who in turn hold sway over the community of women and children. One manifestation of control is to control what they wear. No afghani woman in her right mind would step outside without a burka.

    Here’s a thought. Instead of banning the burka in Australia, why don’t we have laws that make it a punishable offence for anyone to coerce or force someone else to wear a burka (or to be fair, any head covering associated with any culture or community)? This might help to ensure that Australian women that wear the burka are doing so because they are free to do so.

  • dlb says:

    I have read that traditional Muslim dress largely disappeared from countries like Egypt, Turkey, Iran and many others in the 1920s, partly by government decree or the citizens wanting to embrace western lifestyles. Starting with the Iranian revolution in 1979 there seems to be a pushback by many Muslims against western culture with the return of the veil and headscarf in many countries. I often wonder about Muslim youth in places like Australia whether Islamic dress is more about making a statement than anything to do with modesty.

    I once saw a documentary on the Saudi Royal Family, in one episode they were in an aircraft and were attended by female flight attendants without head coverings. Later the Prince admitted that he wished his country would more embrace modernity, but said they were up against a deeply conservative culture.

  • DaveW says:

    Hi Don,
    Please correct me if I am wrong, but I was under the impression that most of the nuns’ habits (now mostly obsolescent to gone) were derived from traditional dress in the eras when these orders began with slight (to elaborate in the richer orders) modifications to indicate a devotion to Christ. So, originally their dress was not very different from the norm, but has become increasingly abstracted over time – a very old way of dressing preserved into recent times. I think that is different from forcing women back into a centuries-old traditional attire and I suspect traditional Islamists would agree.

  • margaret says:

    The Faith, Fashion Fusion photograph that you’ve used to illustrate On Muslim Women and Dress is a fashion photo shoot. I haven’t seen the exhibition but I like the clothes shown including the hijab.
    I’m not convinced that our kind of society is the model for the world. Our kind of society still expects women to decorate and enhance the lives of men and when they don’t conform to this expectation they are often given a very hard time.
    The burqa to me is a symbol of woman as a non-person – the property of her husband, father or her god) but to ban the burqa in parliament (statistically I’d like to see how many burqa wearing women have visited parliament in the last twelve months), is just another example of discrimination in a society that is woman-friendly only on men’s terms.

    • Mike says:

      Your arguments are always very gender centric what makes you think this is about women at all? It is a matter of a person going into a place and wearing garments that are able to conceal their identity and what they may have about the body. They may be male or not, suicide bombers come in both genders and that is what it’s about. The burqa for me is a symbol of male oppression the most important part of which is the suppression of communication. Facial expression is more important for communication than what is said. Someone can say no or yes and the person talking with them can know they mean the opposite. It is the same as putting a bag over the head of your spouse when in public.

      • margaret says:

        That’s because I am a scary f-e-m-i-n-i-s-t.
        Have you seen any men oppressed in a similar way? As to your bag over the head comment, as a teenager in a country town I once actually heard a boy who fancied himself as a budding connoisseur of women (‘pulling the chicks’) say to others in our group at the time about a girl whose body he admired “she’d be alright if you put a bag over her head.” Did I say I am a fan of the burqa? No, I did not. Read Waleed Aly this morning.

        • Mike says:

          So do you mean being a feminist is a matter of totally avoiding the point and creating a straw man or should I say straw person. Does this mean suicide bombers are okay by you as long as they are women?

          • margaret says:

            Being a feminist is about being treated equally in society – it’s necessary to be one because women are not, even now. When I perceive that a minority group of women is being unfairly targeted, as in the proposed banning of the burqa in parliament, and then the ridiculous proposition that someone suspected of being a potential terrorist should sit with the children I’m reminded of the fact that both women and children are not treated and respected as having the same rights and status as men.

            You are being ridiculous to imply what your last sentence intimates.

          • Mike says:

            There you go again steering everything into a gender argument is not about feminism this is entirely about what is needed to be safe in public. The last sentence is entirely to the point you are sanctioning the hiding of identity in the mistaken belief that it is about the rights of women. It is not, anyone can be under that burqa, it may be a man this has happened overseas. Anyone attempting to enter a a public place should be identifiable, the possibilities of concealment of weapons considered. As I understand it people going to Parliament house must identify themselves this also applies to courts, banks, police stations and maybe other places. You are arguing against security in all circumstances.

          • margaret says:

            I won’t change Mike and neither will you. The burqa is not even the correct term for the garment, it is the niqab that is proposed to be banned – you chaps all love your statistics so much so please tell me how many potential terrorists male or female wearing niqab have come to parliament house in the last twelve months.

          • Mike says:

            I made a comment 2 days ago on this thread you will find it below in it there is a picture of a burqa and niqab in that order. It definitely is both of them that is being spoken about. I have not seen any comment about the hijab. Your constant refrain about telling you how many potential terrorists wearing such a garb have been to Parliament house in the last 12 months is ridiculous. I don’t know of any potential terrorists or nutters or anyone else who would wished to do someone harm in the parliament. So since none of this occurred in the last 12 months let’s close down all checks let’s not worry about it give us a break! Sometime back a rather disturbed gentleman drove his four-wheel-drive through into Kings Hall since that time various provisions have taken place to stop it occurring again. Seems they got it wrong only ever happened once and it hasn’t happened quite a few years so let’s take all that stuff down.

          • margaret says:

            How about this as a sensible, non-discriminatory, non witch-hunt request instead of BAN – Please note: you will not be permitted into parliament house unless head gear is removed – instead of “burqua and niqab are banned from parliament house.

            Perhaps politically aware/interested muslim women who wear burqa/niqab will then be encouraged to confront why it is that they are wearing these garments.

          • Mike says:

            I would totally agree with this but if there is a major terrorist action in a public place in Australia I would advocate that all change. As already happens in many places you are not allowed to conceal your identity I would advocate that it be extended to all public places.

          • AM1202 says:

            Margaret, I once enjoyed your postings as quite enlightened and readable, but I now suspect you are a bitter person – someone, somewhere has done you a disservice as a female and the offence has never left you. You have not been able to move forward from the event.

            What about something like this for this contentious subject:

            Any person entering a public place (enter the list of public places) must have their face fully exposed and be devoid of offensive devices of any kind. The gatekeeper of such public places has the right to conduct a search of the entering person to confirm the existence or otherwise of offensive devices, and retain and dispose of illegal devices.

            Just for you Margaret, “person” means a biped of the male, female, other genders or none, of any religion or none, of any ethnicity or none, any any sexuality (either outed or not-yet-outed) or none, of any marital status or none. Females are not automatically excluded.

            Please add more to this list so we can cover the waterfront.

            Note females have not been singled out for exemption so you should be happy there.

            Public places can be defined and you are capable of thinking of the places. But do not exempt female places (Country Womens Association comes to mind).

          • margaret says:

            Dear robot AM1202

            It’s a pity that having sometimes liked my postings that you choose to respond at a time when you have found me bitter.

            I can only respond with … whatever …

          • margaret says:

            P.S. The only person who has ever done me a disservice as a person (I really would now like to be gender neutral regarding my own self and those I love), is ME.

            Goodbye to this male centric blog – I move on to one where people are more tolerant of diversity in ideas.

          • Don Aitkin says:


            I have enjoyed your many comments, and hope that you will stay here as a reader and commenter. You don’t come across to me as bitter at all.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Hi Margaret

            It is true that males are a bit more left than right brained, and some may say half-brained. Well, it’s a bit unfair that women have their two hemispheres connected better than we do, but that’s how we are. I think you’re being a bit tough on us, as I do think there’s some diversity. I for one don’t agree with every male-sourced comment on this post.

            I agree with Don – don’t stay away!

          • Margaret says:

            Oh AM1202 why hide behind this alias? I know exactly who you are Peter. How brave you are.

          • Mike says:

            I have been commenting on this blog for a while and have not seen AM 1202 before. There are a number of Peters who contribute to this blog and I strongly doubt that it would be any of them. They as well as myself try to be polite as compared to the abuse I have suffered on other blogs from those of the left. It turns out that the whole fuss about Parliament house was brought on by a tipoff that there was going to be a demonstration by a number of people in the burqas, as an emergency response it was decided they should be segregated in a glassed in area that was available.

            In France burqas, niqab are illegal in public, a woman wearing one will be detained identified and fined up to $190. A man forcing a woman to wear one may have to pay a fine of $35,000 and be jailed for a year. When the law was being debated it was strongly supported by feminists. A woman who supports the burqa and also claims to be a feminist seems to have contradictory views. I don’t see how such contradictory views can be reconciled.

          • margaret says:

            When in Australia do as the French do?
            I don’t support the burqa – I support the woman however misguided or oppressed, INSIDE the burqa and I doubt very much she’ll be swanning up to parly house to see question time.
            Let’s just be completely upfront and say – Abbott fed the word confronting, Bronwyn Bishop took the ball and ran with it. Anyone ‘dressed up’ in burqa who comes to parliament house is more than likely a protester in the case of mass burqas or possibly someone more of a lone wolf threat but let’s carefully separate the somewhat ridiculous notion of all niqab/burqa wearing women being potential threats to our everyday lives.
            If a sheik arrived at parliament house in white flowing robes that’d be pretty unusual too, you can hide a lot under those. But security exists at parliament house.
            Public areas are another matter but the reason we all hate the garment is its sinister blackness and hidden mouths.

          • John BENNETT says:

            But Margaret, I do not think this debate about the burqa is about women excusively, although one assumes only women wear them (is their proof that every burqa wearer is female – highly likely).

            The debate is about full face coverings and the unease and discomfort they cause to viewers, and the obvious security concerns (although probably fairly slim).

            And of course there is the social aspect – why ? are they worn (the Koran makes no mention of face coverings for either genders). The clear answer is male domination (or insecurity). Male domination sits very uneasily in Australian society.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Hi Margaret

            I am the Peter with whom you have exchanged views previously on AGW and other topics, in friendly and constructive dialogue. I am definitely not AM1202, and I post under my correct name. I have not been looking at this site for a few days, as I’ve been busy elsewhere. I suppose I’ll need to look at what AM1202 has posted, but for the moment I’ll just say, I have never found you to be bitter.

            I think it is the case that some men in western society both yesterday and today, do consider women to be inferior. All my life I’ve thought that a ridiculous perception, which has been fortuitous, as I have five grown daughters whom I admire enormously, and I’m sure the bonds between us would be badly weakened if they did not have my great respect.

            Turning to the issue of face covering, I’d make a couple of points. I think it has far more to do with culture than religion, and some of that cultural context can be overlaid with domineering by males. That does not mean at all that every Muslim woman who dresses in niqab or burka is dominated by some male, but I think there are good grounds not only for considering that some are, and the motives are primarily control. On the other hand, some women, perhaps many, may feel much greater safety in such garments in public, because that’s what they’ve been used to since puberty! Not hard to understand, as I suspect not too many in the West are prepared to flout convention and the familiar, and strip off at grand finals.

            So on the one hand in our society, we say that people should be free to choose what they wear, but in fact, we have all kinds of conventions and constraints. Just in my swimming togs I’m OK at the beach, but not in a restaurant or a city bus.

            I think there’s a much stronger argument for discouraging full or partial face covering than security, important as that is in some circumstances, where other screening technology is not available. It is a matter of social cohesion. Imagine for a moment strolling through a busy shopping mall, street, or public venue, and many of the men were wearing balaclavas. (As with any skier, I’ve often experienced this, especially waiting in a queue for a T-bar lift – you have no idea of what sort of person it is who comes roaring down the slopes towards you, and ploughs to a stop beside you, until he or she says “great day, isn’t the snow just marvellous!” and immediately the camaraderie is there. But if that person remains silent, what am I to conclude? I have little to go on, and there is no exchange of joint enjoyment.) Without the balaclava, where I can read the face, I know something of the person already.

            Apart from obvious climatic conditions or for safety reasons, I see no good social reason for people to go around anonymously. As I said above, I accept that many who are used to full covering may well feel uncomfortable without it. But perhaps they can gradually learn to trust us in our society.

            There’s a lot of substance in this issue, and if you care to pick up on some of these points, we can continue fruitfully. And I wish you well.

          • margaret says:

            I actually GET it you know, the security issue, so the only point I’d like to pick up on, is the flouting of convention and the familiar. I think the current PM would be only too happy to flout convention and the familiar and swap his (‘I’m a boy!’) blue tie for a pair of (‘I’m a boy!’) red Speedos any chance he could. He would be more than comfortable standing there in parliament wearing them – all of the men should do that and the women conversely can wear shirts and plain business suits with or without ties.

          • dlb says:

            Hi Peter, I hope Margret stays around too. I am in agreement with you about disliking the anonymity of full face coverings. I find it rude to hide ones face regardless of sex, but I suppose this is my cultural upbringing. Like many good ideas I think this multicultural ideal has been taken too far. We are not a country where anything goes, we have traditions and sensibilities like any other. We frown upon forced marriages and genital mutilation, I think full face coverings should be added to the list of archaic traditions that do not belong here.

          • Mike says:

            When I was doing my university degree wayback I studied artificial intelligence and speech recognition. Obviously it was a computing degree hence the availability of the subjects. In order to understand what someone is saying context is extremely important and that became obvious to me. In this case the context am talking about is the facial expression it is possibly just as important as what is said. Talk to someone over a phone or write emails et cetera and it is very easy to have misunderstandings. So put a bag over your head and go out in public and many will think you have evil intent and you can say to them I’m a good guy but it won’t work. So if you want to make sure your spouse is unlikely to leave you or get involved with someone else keep them at home and if they must go out in public make sure you cut off as much communication as possible. As an aside Asimov wrote of how unsettling it was to have expressionless robots and he postulated living alone amongst robots could possibly send a human mad.

  • Margaret says:

    I may as well leave with the last word. I would never have posted copiously to this blog had I not been taunted (?) by a private email after having commented once (not sure which piece, maybe regarding Jane Austen). It’s possible that you and your acolytes Don are all perfectly nice people, I don’t know you, but you come across as a bunch of self satisfied, opinionated pains in the neck. Having put my head above the parapets I had to expect someone like AM1202 to come along and finish me off just as I was finding some common ground with Mike. AM1202 was just plain nasty.

    • John BENNETT says:

      Margaret, it would be a shame for you to leave. Your comments are appreciated. I think what AM1202 was driving at was security, and security is genderless and just about any “less” you can think of.

      When a woman (or could be a man) goes out with full face covering, there is a chance that that act is for unsavory purposes. The risk is that in public places (and I suppose just about any place outside the home is public) there could be considerable mayhem. I would have thought Parliament would be one of the “defined” public places (as well as banks, courts etc).

      While AM1202 was pretty rough in his words, I can see what was being said – its a matter of critical public security, which as you well know, it a hot topic at the moment – defence force members being directed to wear civilian clothes.

      • John BENNETT says:

        A question. Would a person wearing a full face motor cycle helmet with dark shade be admitted to the open gallery of Parliament.

        Could he or she claim membership of the Canberra Chapter of the Most Holy Motorcycle Riders ? And if rejected, I would think it a case of discrimination.

        • dlb says:

          Sorry, did you mean to say “Would you think it a case of discrimination?” The way it reads at present is that you are siding with the bikie nun / monk.

          • John BENNETT says:

            I was playing the Devils Advocate. Are those people refused entry to courts and banks (etc) until they remove face covering devices suffering discrimination ?

      • margaret says:

        Thank you.

  • margaret says:

    You guys sure are good at mansplaining. This li’l woman is mighty grateful to y’all.

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    It’s obvious this issue of full covering matters greatly to us all. The comments on this site and others illustrate the range of views. Here is my thinking on some of the points raised:
    ** Islamic clothing for women is a matter of culture, not religion; doesn’t mean we should not accept it (that’s usually what we mean when we say “respect”) because it is essentially cultural, and not religious (if in doubt, check your English translation of the Q’ran.)
    ** The wearing of Islamic clothing for women may be a means of identifying with a group (but I note that men don’t seem to have the same need for a similar overt expression).
    ** In some cases the use of the burka or niqab may be a means of ensuring women are subservient to their menfolk, but some of those wearers and their menfolk may not think so. For some women, these articles may have provided a sense of protection from the threatening world they have known beyond these shores.
    ** For those women who wish to wear the burka or niqab, to dress like other Australian women may seem shocking (especially in beachwear!), as shocking as it would have been to the world of Jane Austen, not so long ago for us.
    ** The issue has little or nothing to do with freedom to dress as one pleases. It is not about freedom of expression, and despite our new Human Rights Commisioner’s comments the other day, it has absolutely nothing to do with free speech. The truth is that none of us dresses entirely as we please – we are as constrained by our culture as anyone else. What we consider appropriate in one place is not acceptable somewhere else, and we dress accordingly (well, most of us do, but I do get upset when in my grubby singlet and thongs they turn me away from my favourite club.)
    ** The scarves and dark clothing of the Italian and Greek grandmothers of the 1950s-1970s did not exclude them from intermingling comfortably in Australian society, from a sense of belonging in the audience at a school concert, or among a crowd of shoppers. We felt they belonged, and I think, many of them came to realise that indeed they did belong. Their children and their grandchildren certainly were absorbed, and added hugely to this country’s cultural richness, diversity and quality.
    ** Security is a factor – it’s not always about someone pulling out a knife or carrying a bomb, it’s about feeling comfortable about the person next you in a crowd, or being able to see the face of that stranger in the crowd. When you can’t, you might ask “Why are they hiding? Or is someone making them hide?”
    ** The issue is primarily about social cohesion. The niqab and burka quite deliberately encourage separation and distance, which is anathema to cohesion. That’s why most Australians are objecting to them. We don’t want that kind of separatism in our society.
    ** If we were to accept that the principle of ‘freedom of choice’ is at risk, the answer is straightforward. We are kidding ourselves if we think that every good principle we have will predominate in practice. All the time some principle or other becomes subordinate to another which in its practical expression is far more important. For example, my personal right to privacy becomes subordinate to the common safety of all, when I go through a security check. Likewise, that ‘freedom of choice’ in attire becomes subservient to the principle of social cohesion and wellbeing.

    Already we are seeing tragic fallout from the failure of cohesion, in the numbers of Australians now fighting for ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Many of these I understand have spent most of their lives here, starting well before the burka and the niqab have become a heated issue. I think we have very good grounds to insist that social cohesion is maintained as one of our highest priorities. It is not the same as uniformity at all, but it is about belonging, about shared critical human values – values that it is obvious to me are shared by the bulk of Australian Muslims.

    Action? For the present, I wouldn’t propose banning the burka or the niqab in public places in Australia. (Makes one wonder whether it would then hang in the wardrobe at home, inside of which it is of course not worn; it would be used for those occasional trips back to the country of birth – and wouldn’t that be a shock to the system!) No, but I’d suggest the issue is soundly debated within Islamic communities, and that very thorough, sensitive and carefully planned orientation sessions are provided for new arrivals, where the issues are thoroughly discussed and led by fellow-Muslims. Our new arrivals need to understand what safety means in Australia, what our culture is and why it is the way it is, and what we want to preserve and encourage. Those who are used to the burka, may find they can step up to the niqab, than after a while to the chador, and then the hijab. Give them some time, both women and men, to become comfortable and feel unthreatened.

  • PeterE says:

    I am uncomfortable with Muslim women’s head coverings (all of them). For a long time I have told myself that, well, if she feels comfortable in it I guess she is entitled to wear it. I have changed my mind. As mentioned in some of the posts below, this style of head covering is not unfamiliar to the western tradition. In more recent times it has been retained by nuns and I can see a case for the continuance of this, extending to all religious office-holders including those of the Muslim faith. For the general run of women, however, the dress has been out of fashion for hundreds of years. To bring it back in current numbers is to drag us back to the middle ages. Furthermore, it is worn as a uniform and so is divisive. It says we are separate and superior. Moreover, while it might have some practical utility in a desert sandstorm it has none in a modern city. Some styles of dress are unacceptable, for example, shorts and thongs in restaurants. Sure, people will break the unwritten rules but they will be silently censured for doing so. In our society there are many ways in which a woman can dress modestly. I would hope that Muslim women living in Australia would find these ways and adopt them. If not, the whole appearance of our streets will be changed in a way that is undesirable.

  • Mike says:

    I commented before on the fact that France had banned the burqa is not exactly correct. They prohibited the covering of the face in public so a balaclava would come under the same category.

    There is an interesting article in today’s Australian by John Hirst about this issue. And he makes a comment about Tim Wilson’s assertion that the burqa would be protected by human rights.

    “Wilson is very confident that the burka is well protected by human
    rights — even freedom of speech! One might have expected that when the
    French ban reached the European Court of Human Rights it would be
    overturned given that body’s track record. But no, the court found that
    the law had the legitimate purpose of encouraging citizens to live

    For me this confirms my opposition on all grounds is not good for society or the wearer.

  • […] that these ideas run through our public life today. So much of the argument about whether or not Muslim women should wear this or that aspect of dress draws from Devlin’s concept of a shared morality, while my little essay on Section 18c, a […]

  • […] have written on this issue a couple of times before, for example, here, and there is no doubt that the issue is a tangled one. Perhaps Muslims are different to other […]

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