My lengthyish walks home to counterbalance a sedentary job don’t often divert me past Wilford Street in Newtown. But I do try and swing by that way every couple of months for two reasons: to see some of the world-class open air galleries on display in the surrounding back streets and lanes, and to check out the latest re–act–ionary slogan from Sergio Redegalli on the Cydonia Glass Studio corner. I rarely – okay, never – find myself agreeing with the message of the murals, but it’s hard not to appreciate Sergio’s sincere pot-stirring vigor.
I noticed the other week the mural had returned from its brief anti-Greens hiatus back to the ol’ dependable ‘SAY NO TO BURQAS’ that’s been prickling the neighbourhood for over a year now. My instinctual reaction as an Australian leftie is to get a little outraged and dismiss the message as Islamophobic twaddle. And it probably is. (Sergio, if you’re reading this and believe I’ve misrepresented you I’d love to catch up over a drink, hear your thoughts on the subject, and set the record straight here. My contact email can be found in the About tab at the top.) But I had to catch myself. That response is one of my pet bugbears of the left.
No matter where we sit on the political spectrum we inevitably reduce complex issues to simple binary arguments. Us, and those people who are wrong. Aussies and ‘foreigners’. Gillard versus Abbott. Palestine versus Israel. We get blinkered by our own ‘side’, so much so that we’ll excuse any number of evils perpetrated by it if it serves to undermine the opposition. I see it a lot in the dreaded burqa debate: by jumping to the defence of multiculturalism by default some on the left are placed in the corner of excusing cultural norms that are actually genuinely appalling, all to right a relatively benign politically incorrect slight. The left so often gets cornered into defending horrific behaviour. Case points from the last half century would have to include some vocal members of the left contorting themselves into dismissing human rights crimes in Russia, Cuba, China, Vietnam and Cambodia.
In my mind a crime is a crime regardless of who perpetrates it. You could point to the Palestine conflict as an on-going example of this problem. Of course Palestine has a right to self-determination. And yes, the Israeli military continues to rack up an ever-growing record of human rights violations. (You only need to look at the casualty breakdowns of the conflict to see which side bears the human brunt of the conflict.) But none of that excuses calls by members of the Palestinian leadership to drive Israeli into the sea, or blankets ‘almost systemic’ humans rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority. Where is the condemnation from the left though? Oh that’s right, it doesn’t conveniently fit the narrative of the honest Palestinian underdog fighting the evil Goliath Jewish state.
You see, I think there genuinely is a lot wrong with the burqa. One commentator claimed that it ‘equates piety with the disappearance of women.’ It creates an appalling double standard, and excuses men of responsibility for their thoughts and actions. Pathetic. Whether the burqa is a religious or cultural phenomenon is up for debate, but the consensus seems to be that there is no literal instruction in the Koran to wear it. Not that that should have any bearing on our response to it. I grew up amongst a lot of fundamentalist Christians and heard similar arguments to the pro-burqa case: that modesty and silence was a true way to show love and respect to God. That is utter rubbish in Christian circles – doctrinally and otherwise – and I think it is an equally rubbish rationalisation for the burqa. In my blunt opinion the only outward way to honour your god(s) – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Pastafarian, whatever – is to roll up your sleeves and do you damnedest to leave the world and its inhabitants in better shape than you found them.
Cultural norms are all well and good and I’d go as far to say I think Australia does a reasonable job of integrating them into our wider multicultural identity. Cultural diversity enriches everything, from our worldview to our eating habits. And to steal an oft used line, if you think otherwise our national airline carrier could really do with your one-way patronage. However I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect citizens of this country to defer their cultural and religious values to the wider values that Australia supposedly upholds – equality between the sexes in this case. Human rights trumps cultural/religious edicts in other words. I’m not singling out followers of Islam for criticism here – there’s plenty of homegrown religious denominations that should come under fire for their blatant sexism, racism and homophobia. Most of them actually. Australia is a founding signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and frankly I don’t think any religious or cultural group has any right to be legally protected to practise contrary in Australia. (For the record I also think you can find as much ‘subjegation’ of women on any given Friday or Saturday night in bars and clubs all around Australia, though somehow we’ve contorted that as an affirmative gesture of womanhood. As opposed to giving men what they/we want.)
But let’s not let the right off so easily – let’s not pretend that vocal opponents of the burqa are motivated by a deep and committed desire to champion the rights of women. Oh no. In writing this post I’ve trawled a lot of blogs and forum posts arguing to ban the burqa. I’m sure the authors of those posts will disagree with this assessment, but from where I’m sitting the broad campaign has one thrust: to oppose Islam in Australia. Islam is the most visible recent arrival on our fair sunburnt shores (despite its actual arrival dating back to the first fleet). And the simple fact is some Australian’s don’t like it, make no effort to understand it, and therefore oppose it. They see it as being at odds to the ‘slap on some sluggers, grab a beer from the eskie and throw a [pork] sausage on the barbie’ culture. Thankfully, some might say. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d wager money that the people behind the anti-Islam campaigns would have opposed Italian immigration in the 50’s, or Vietnamese in the 70’s, Chinese in the 80’s and 90’s, and perhaps even Sudanese in the 00’s. Each and every new wave of immigration strikes fear into the hearts of the far right and this latest wave is no different.
As for the actual call to ban the burqa, well here we are again: men talking about what women can or can’t do. Ho hum. Personally I don’t see it as an effective way to empower the very people it seeks to ‘protect’. Typical of most right-wing knee-jerk responses it attacks the external symbols of a problem without addressing the root causes. I fear if put into law (highly unlikely but never beyond possibility) it will drive women in fundamentalist households out of sight metaphorically and physically, denying them the very thing that permits them contact with the wider world. And no, by that I don’t mean TV. I would have thought more ground would be gained by providing classes and social outings for Islamic women where they mix with women from other cultural backgrounds. Like most things progress happens with small steps, rather than by blanket enforcement.
And to those defacing the mural: grow the hell up. You’re proving the left is just as prone to acts of thuggery and intimidation as the fascist far right, and is equally incapable of sharing a world where opposing points of view exist. But then that’s probably not a problem for the vandals, provided the prevailing points of view match theirs.