Monica Doumit: what would it mean to ban the burqa?

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The “Say No …” sign in Newtown, Sydney, in 2011. Photo: Newtown grafitti, licence: cc by 2.0

Many weeks ago, in an article about US President-elect Donald Trump, I made an offhand comment that a person who does not believe in religious freedom for Muslims does not believe in religious freedom for anyone, and said that it would be the subject of another column.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel has called for a ban on the burqa, joining countries like France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and certain voices in Australia (including, unsurprisingly, Senator Pauline Hanson) who suggested we do the same here. I thought that this might be an appropriate time to comment.

My proposition is simple: if we actively support or quietly stand by while laws are passed which restrict a person’s right to religious freedom, simply because their religion is not our own, then not only are we allowing one of their most fundamental human rights to be diminished, but we also set a precedent for the restriction of our own freedoms by an authority hostile to our own faith.

Consider what it would mean for Australia to ban the burqa, which is the form of Islamic dress where a woman’s entire body is covered, and a mesh or similar material covers her eyes. It is not commonly worn in Australia, but I have seen it.

The first argument in favour of banning the burqa is simply that: It is so uncommon that it would only affect a handful of Australian Muslim women.

I tend to think that the same is also an argument against its banning. Why would we enact a law which only affects a few people unless the law was more about symbolism than anything else? I think that laws which restrict religious expression for “symbolic” reasons should strike fear in the hearts of all people of faith.

Along similar lines, I have heard it argued that the wearing of the burqa is not a religious requirement, but a cultural one, and so banning it would not be an imposition on religious freedom. Some even go as far as to suggest that we would be liberating Muslim women by supporting a ban.

I don’t know whether the wearing of the burqa is a religious requirement for Muslim women; I am not even a Catholic religious scholar, let alone an Islamic one. In any event, I don’t think it matters either way because freedom of religion is about more than being permitted by the state to meet the minimum requirements of your faith.

It is about allowing you to express it fully, restricted only as far as necessary to preserve public health or safety. Given that the majority of religious sisters in Australia do not wear a habit, could a similar argument not be put forward for the banning of religious garb, because it, too, is not essential to the living of consecrated life?

Or take another example: As Catholics, we are only required to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. So a person could feasibly argue that attending Mass on any days other than this is a cultural, and not a religious, requirement, and ban weekday Mass attendance.

And as far as the argument that it would somehow “liberate” women, I don’t think the law should be the arbiter of what items of dress constitute a free versus enslaved woman.

If they were to do so, I could add a number of items of women’s clothing which are worn today and which I consider oppressive! Are not the young women who try to make their way through the city on a Saturday night in stiletto heels and short, tight dresses similarly oppressed by a culture which demands they dress in a certain way?

More seriously, outlawing the burqa would likely not see these women in public without a face covering; it is more likely that they would not leave the house at all, stripping them of any form of social interaction.

I’m not suggesting that people who seek to ban the burqa or otherwise restrict the freedom of our Islamic brothers and sisters should necessarily be thought of as “Islamophobic.”

For the most part, that word – like many other “phobias” – is used in order to stifle legitimate debate.  I just think they have not thought it through clearly.

Banning a burqa is a precedent for banning a religious habit. Banning the building of an Islamic school is a precedent for banning the building of a Catholic school. Or university. Or hospital. Or nursing home.

The only difference is who is making the rules at the relevant time. We should be defending the religious freedom of everyone, not just ourselves. It is the right thing to do. And it is the wise thing to do.