Irrespective of whether one applauds the burqa as an expression of religious freedom in Australia as Attorney-General, George Brandis affirmed or assails it as an affront to our Christian, moral values as Senator Pauline Hansen does, there is a more pertinent, even profound perspective encompassing the issue; that being, an endless controversy about the apparel of women.
Earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Belgium’s 2011 ban on the naqib was legal while in February this year, Germany passed legislation banning the burqa and the veil. France passed similar bans in 2011 as did Bulgaria. Last year, The Netherlands banned them in hospitals and schools. In 2013, the Ticino region in Switzerland banned them in public areas while Catalonia in Spain also legislated a ban.
At the same time, a young Saudi woman was arrested in Riyadh for wearing “unmodest clothes”, a miniskirt and crop top in a video, rather than parade in an abaya, a long, loose robe as dictated by Saudi law.
Just previously, there was castigating comment about 32 scantily-clad females competing in Miss Universe Australia because it was claimed women are more than a physical ideal. In 2014, the Miss World pageant banned the scurrilous bikini and Miss Teen USA replaced bikinis with active wear.
Last year, while legislators in France debated banning the burkini, new swimwear for Muslim women, in Israel a female singer was ushered off stage because of her state of ‘undress’, a bikini top revealed beneath an open blouse.
Whether women choose to wear a burqa or flash more flesh in a bikini, they seem to engender a fear and loathing that obfuscates the real issue of decreeing a uniform dress code that invites a prosaic poverty of creativity and individuality.
The late British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, wrote aptly that “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavour after a worthy manner of life.”
The apparel of women, now a matter of law in many countries, is not just about identifying suspected terrorists as many argue, but highlights a more disturbing dilemma about female appearance, image and moral values.
Recent Canadian research at the University of Saskatchewan studied selfies of more than 900 men and women on the Tinder dating app to find both sexes manipulated them to create a more favourable impression. Simultaneously, a University of Wisconsin study published in the Journal of Social Psychology revealed that women in the workforce who showed more cleavage in their dress were perceived as better bosses and appeared more powerful to others.
No such issue for men in nondescript, boring, bland suits.
It is difficult to ascertain just how important appearance is, not just in the workplace, but also on our suburban streets and in other public spaces. The burqa may disguise appearance and generate antagonism but it can reflect personal beliefs as much as a dreary, drab and dowdy dress or flamboyant, flashy and fabulous apparel. Images can simultaneously manifest evil malevolence and benevolent compassion, implying a need to see beyond the superficial to actually ‘identify’ the genuine nature of a woman as a human being.
Sometimes, reflecting on what’s not obvious in a carefully conceived image can be more constructive than hiding behind attractive apparel. Fashion sense, enshrined for social decorum and as contradictory as it can be, denies a facility for deception whether we don a burqa or bikini. The market message of appearance can delude and distort a reality of self and foster assumptions that belie common sense.
A sensible rationale should permeate public discourse as while the burqa may offend some people in our suburbs, others may be just as disconcerted by low-cut tops and tight, crutch length skirts on our streets. No freedom, be it religious or otherwise, is absolute and what women wear must be adjusted to accommodate individual expression as well as communal co-operation. The challenge is to find mutually respectful apparel that’s appropriate in different contexts, at different times and for different circumstances, whether wearing a burqa, burkini or bikini.