The senator from Queensland, Pauline Hanson’s stunt in the Australian parliament sparked the age-old debate on the relationship between the veil and women’s liberation. Hanson walked into the Australian senate draped in a burqa only to reveal her face as she stepped on to the mike and called for a ban on burqas. While this stunt received a lot of criticism by members of the Australian parliament, she seemed pleased with her performance. Branding the burqa as oppressive, un-Australian and a threat to the western society’s ideals, she asked the leader in the senate, Attorney General George Brandis, to work towards eradicating the burqa from the public sphere.
Historically too, women’s bodies have been used as symbols for the expression and practice of religion and politics. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have had debates between traditionalists and modernizers where the former used religious text to advocate for the veil and the latter argued against it. Hanson falls within the ambit of the latter group. What both approaches fail to see is that stigmatization and coercion cannot lead to the self-emancipation of veiled women– if that is the aim at all. What such an approach towards the veil actually does is that it ends up targeting the victim of gender inequality and excluding from the public sphere the same veiled women that both groups claim to want to ‘free’.
When we attempt to legislate any kind of choice -whether it is for-veil or against it- under the pretense of freeing ‘oppressed women’, in most cases we assume that all women are social conformists: where she has chosen the veil or forsaken it simply because that’s what her community asks her to do and not because she wants to. Hanson makes the same assumption when she claimed the burqa is oppressive because all women are forced to wear it. This is a dangerous generalization. If we go forward with it, we paint the veiled woman to be one who is always submissive and weak. On the contrary, in a country like France with a strong anti-veiling sentiment for instance a veiled woman is a rebel. Professor of Political Theory, Cecile Laborde argues the veil has always been a reaction or retaliation to the anti-veil discourse. In such a case the veil may also be a kind of “anti-west protest”. To simply call the veil a symbol of female oppression and sexual repression is problematic. Arguably so, structures in modern society defining norms of beauty and fashion can be equally oppressive.
If women’s oppression is a real concern for Hanson, it is important to clarify: the ‘veil’ is not the issue. Attempts to free women by removing the veil brands women’s bodies as symbols of “culture rather than individual agents”. As Professor of Politics Nancy J Hirschmann puts it, any such attempt replaces one type of social control with another.
An understanding of agency from a feminist standpoint needs to take into account the limitations on women’s ability to make choices in their cultural contexts. We can only hope to liberate women through promoting cross-cultural communication and challenging existing social constructions and structures of power. One would have hoped that discourse on women would have improved in the last decade, and those in positions of power and influence, would have the maturity, understanding and sensitivity to deal intelligently with such critical issues. Unfortunately, Hanson is far off the mark.