Burka (niqab) issue requires careful thought

[Contributed article]

The wearing of the niqab (commonly incorrectly referred to as a “burka”) by some Muslim women in Australia has become a hot issue for public debate recently, with Tasmanian Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie introducing a Bill into the federal senate seeking to outlaw them entirely from being worn in the public space. Whilst such a Bill never had any chance of succeeding, and would probably be quite unconstitutional, considering section 116 of the Australian constitution, as well as Australia’s commitment to various UN treaties on civil and religious freedoms, it has certainly raised much public discussion.

A true BURKA is a loose-fitting garment, covering the whole body, with a full facial covering, with a mesh for the eyes, so the wearer still has some vision. These are almost never worn in Australia. What is more commonly worn is really a NIQAB, which is a full body covering, with a full facial veil, that has a slit for the eyes, and is almost always black in colour. Only a small percentage of Muslim women in Australia wear the niqab. Far more commonly worn is the HIJAB, which covers only the hair. Many other Muslim women dress like Western women, and wear no hair coverings at all.

The public wearing of the niqab is certainly sanctioned (and in some interpretations, mandated) by Islam. But perhaps of note is that the niqab and the burka actually far pre-date Islam. They were worn in a number of Middle Eastern cultures, mostly by upper class women, long before Islam came into being in the 7th century AD. The idea was probably to limit the carnal thoughts of unworthy lower class men towards upper class women.

Of course, women covering their hair has also been very commonplace in European cultures throughout history, to also protect the perceived modesty of women, and suppress the carnal thoughts of men towards women. Of course, for centuries Christian nuns have worn HABITS to cover the hair.

As Western society has become more liberalised and more practical, dress standards for women have changed. Now, it’s not at all unusual for Australian women to wear bikinis at the beach during a scorching Australian summer. But a hundred years ago, bikinis would have been regarded as shockingly revealing.

From a purely practical viewpoint, Muslim women are probably not doing themselves any favours by wearing the niqab, and perhaps especially not in the current tense social environment. Vitamin D deficiency is a considerable risk for such women, and wearing a niqab is often seen as being very anti-social by Westerners, familiar with seeing people’s faces when talking to them. Wearing face veils is very much symbolic of the chasm, and the cultural clash between Islam and modern liberal Western values.

However, Islamic dress codes such as hijabs or niqabs, or men wearing long beards for that matter, is in reality much more a SYMPTOM of the seperation between Islam and mainstream Western values, rather than a CAUSE of that seperation. Mutton dressed as lamb is still mutton. And Muslims dressed like Westerners are still Muslims. A lot of the young men who rioted in the Sydney Central Business District in 2012 were dressed very much like young Western men, clean-shaven, with jeans, t-shirts, and many sporting tattoos.

Just as Westerners commonly express themselves through clothing, hairstyles, makeup, tattoos, or piercings, it’s been argued that Muslims wearing Islamic attire, and wearing what is important to them, is their individual self-expression – and that this is actually a very Western concept.

It’s been argued that the presence of the niqab in a society promotes a more fundamentalist aspect of Islam, which is why some countries have banned it outright from being worn. However, it could also be argued that outright banning could increase a sense of persecution amongst Muslims, which may only increase their radicalisation in a very unhealthy way. Likely it would mean the lives of some Muslim women would become even more restricted, as they would be confined to their homes. Would this really be “liberating” Muslim women? Or having the opposite effect?

Certainly, it would be very appropriate for face veils to be banned from sensitive locations like banks, museums, jewellery shops, or entertainment venues where many people gather. Education establishments should also be free to impose their dress standards. Employers should also have a right to determine the dress codes of their employees, and in many occupations face veils would be highly inappropriate. Also, business proprieters would be well within their rights to ask Muslim women not to wear such attire in their privately owned premises. Just as a doorman can refuse entry to a nightclub if a would-be patron is deemed inappropriately dressed, that too, could certainly include anyone dressed in a niqab.

If that is “discrimination”, then too bad; it would be perfectly valid to “discriminate” in such circumstances. Just as Muslims may have a right to freely express themselves, so too does the broader community have a right to protect itself from potential criminal activity.

In some situations, comparisons between the niqab and balaklavas are absolutely valid. But whilst the balaklava has become synonymous with criminal activity, and is likely to instil fear in the general public, unless it is worn in an appropriate way, such as on the ski slopes at Mt Buller in the middle of winter, the same can’t really be said for the niqab. Rather, it is worn to express religious devotion, as well as protect a woman’s perceived “modesty”, according to the values of its adherents. It has certainly rarely ever been used to commit criminal activity in Australia, and in any case, there’s plenty of other ways would-be criminals could disguise their facial identity with – such as by wearing masks, or stockings, or taking their pick from any regular costume hire shop.

So, whilst it would be extremely appropriate to have or allow some restrictions on the wearing of the niqab, there must be serious doubts about the appropriateness of any outright ban, given Australia’s legal and historical respect for religious freedom and freedom of speech.

But niqabs aside, the REAL issue of concern should be the sheer NUMBER of Muslims now living in Australia, rather than the clothing some of them choose to publicly wear. Hiding a very visible symbol of Islam from public view doesn’t change the reality that we still have nearly half a million Muslims in Australia. An outright ban on face veils won’t stop fundamentalist Islam. Furthermore, it could perhaps be argued that the visible presence of such seemingly confronting attire may in fact work to “wake up” the broader Australian community as to the presence of Islam, and what conflicting and “un-Australian” values Muslims may uphold.

History of the bikini”, Wikipedia
As it happened: Violence erupts in Sydney over anti-Islam film”, ABC News, 16 September 2012
Hijab, niqab raise risk of vitamin D deficiency”, Muslim Village
Religious habit”, Wikipedia
Section 116 of the Constitution of Australia”, Wikipedia
Jacqui Lambie to introduce private member’s bill to ban the burqa in public places”, News.com.au, 29 September 2014
The Burqa & Niqab – Uncovering the Facts”, Islamic Information & Services Network of Australasia
Burqa ban bunfight covers up real issue”, The Telegraph, 4 October 2014 (Miranda Devine)
Here’s the truth behind the veil”, Times of India, 27 June 2011


  1. Every income earner has an obligation to pay tax and it’s compulsory to vote. The new immigrants that come to Australia have an obligation to assimilate into the Australian culture as do their children born here or not.

  2. Sorry Mark, I was born in Australia, I’m an Australian citizen and I choose to cover my head when I go out in accordance with my Islamic beliefs. I have as much right to do so as you do to wear what you want. I’m not a “desperate person”, I’m a tax paying Australian voter.

  3. It amazes me that we should be having this discussion. If you come to Australia to live here and be Australian then as a mark of respect you adopt the customs of your adopted country. Anything less than this is crass disrespect for Australia and ignorant contempt for a generous and caring community that has welcomed desperate people.
    Pity respect and manners are not part of these people’s culture

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