Faith / Justice

Can we critique the wearing of the Burka?

I had the joy of watching my close friend, Jacqui Grey, as a panellist on ABC’s Q&A last night (available for the next two weeks on ABC I view for repeat viewing). I have to confess to not being a big fan of the show. Many of the questions asked seemed to bare little relationship to the expertise of panel, and the time given to panellists for response was inadequate–only superficial answers were possible. Notwithstanding this, Jacqui did an absolutely brilliant job.

She did, however, get a little ambushed on the penultimate question. She was asked to respond to Australian concerns about Muslim women wearing the  Burka. While she was sympathetic to the free choice of  Moslem women to wear whatever they want–whenever they felt comfortable with– she nevertheless was prepared to state that a garment  that completely covered a  woman’s face is a symbol of male domination and female oppression. She was immediately  attacked by all and sundry thereafter.The

The worst of these was feminist Eva Cox, who  interrupted Jacqui and went on to insist on a woman’s choice, and to lambast  feminists  (such as Jacqui) for daring to criticise this element of Moslem religion.

Now, anyone who knows me will know that I think that Christian faith requires a generous response to those of another faith–we are, after all, filled with the spirit so that we can love our neighbour.  I’ve invited Muslim imam to the college so that he can share with our students about his faith. I absolutely hate the way Australian society (including too many Christians) have vilified Islam and Muslim people. Indeed, I believe my faith  in Jesus compels me to work for peace between the religions.

Nevertheless, none of this means we should stand silent when injustice and discrimination occurs in the name of religion.  indeed, I’m the first to challenge the church when her message of grace is replaced with one of hatred.  And for this reason, Jacqui Grey was absolutely right to assert that the Burka is a symbol of female oppression. Eva Cox’  concern for free choice completely ignores the fact that ideology, especially religious ideology,  effectively  undermines an individual’s ability to make free choices.

Now, at this point I need to clarify my criticism. I have no problems with Moslem women covering their head–the hijab  is a modest and beautiful  piece of clothing.  In the context of our sexualised culture,  it is also an appropriate declaration that women should not be mere sex objects. More than this, it takes real courage in  Australian society to wear it.  The hijab is a bold symbol of faith, and I applaud people who are prepared to stand up for their belief,  notwithstanding the fact that they are likely to be stared at,  talked about and potentially subject to verbal abuse.

There is, however, a difference between the Hijab and the Burka.  The hijab  helps to establish a  Moslem woman’s identity, the burka  obliterates it.  in doing so, it removes her from social interaction with the community. It thus symbolises and facilitates sexism,  and excludes women from the social structures and hierarchy of society.

Anyway, well done to Jacqueline Grey. She modelled throughout the interview a generosity to people of other faiths. But she also took a stand for equality in the face of the inevitable challenge she was going to receive by the bombastic Eva Cox.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • John
    July 19, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Excellent post Shane, and one I entirely concur with!! Keep up the good work!! GBYAY

  • Shirley Mortara
    July 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Hi, I have many Muslim friends as I have been bridge building into Gallipoli Mosque women groups for 3 yrs now. I started off learning about Islam from their classes. The last year I have been involved in starting an University Library for ISRA (Islamic Scientific Research Acdemy) and cataloguing all their books etc. ( Most of them wear the hijab and Shane I agree the hijab is very pretty. My Muslims friends say that the Burqa is cultural not religious and I agree it represents the opression of women.

    I respect my friends for the views that they have and they respect mine. We all know that each party would love to convert the other if there was a chance. Many of the students ( I volunteer my time on saturdays) cannot believe that I, as a Christian, would do this for their community.

    I attend some lectures that they give and I find them very interesting. I am attending one thi
    s friday night where a theologian( Muslim) Is talking about the Crusades from a Muslim perspective and a Christian Theologian from CSU is talking about Jihad from a Christian perspective. This I feels helps me understand the Muslim as I work in the Library in Auburn and the biggest number of clientele are Muslim.
    I love my Muslim Sisters.

  • jenniferharding
    July 19, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    I agree Shane, sure we can say women have free choice, as much as the ideological constructs of their religion permit them. If the community you are part of affirms a particular behaviour and builds the moral framework for why you should do something, then of course if you want to win respect, favour, and be seen as a key part of the community you probably will “choose” to do it. It’s your choice, but you cannot isolate the choice from the underlying government of social context.

  • Tim Kurylowicz
    July 19, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    well put, Shane.

  • Elly Clifton
    July 19, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    Bombastic – what a great word!

  • Dan Clifton
    July 19, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    I also watched this episode of Q&A and was very impressed with the general acceptance of vary religions/cultures displayed by the panalists. The sceptic in me thinks that this degree of acceptance is possibly contrived and the true views portraied are tempered by the knowledge that this is going out for general consumption by the public and I would be much more interested in a balls and all debate where people can feel they can openly express what they truly feel but I guess Q&A is not the forum for this.

    Interestingly though I do find your post uncharacteristically defensive. While you assert that free choice is taken away by religious ideology, you ignore the fact that people do have free choice in which religion they choose to beleive in. Beyond that if the muslim ideology does not allow women to choose in Australia how come the vast majority of them do not where the burka? I am not saying that I am a fan of the burka (and I do not disagree with the opinion that Jacqui promoted on the show which was very moderate in this respect) but I guess I would stand up to defend the right for people to wear a burka if they so choose (or to wear a mohawk with a tatood face!). Do you think we should follow the lead of France and “Ban the Burkha”? Surley this is simply a cheap stunt that increases prejudice against muslims for political point scoring. In the end the choice to wear what you want is a positive thing (with a few obvious exeptions around police matter, ID purposes etc) and this is a great attribute of the Australian democracy, irrespective of the fact that there are external forces and pressures that push groups to display that freedom in a way that may seem strange to many of us (hence the fact that you and I as a teenagers would not leave the house without a billabong or ripcurl branding displayed) 🙂

  • Tim Kurylowicz
    July 19, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Hey just to follow up that previous comment of mine (enormous as it is!), I just watched the ep of QandA and have to say I thought Eva Cox wasn’t anywhere near as badly behaved as you’ve suggested. She’s clearly very passionate about that particular issue, and to top it off had been outgunned by believers 4 to 1 for the duration of the show – I thought she did a bonza job presenting an alternative point of view, often not knowing if anyone else on the panel was going to back her up. ANyway, to get to the point, Jacqui was brilliant – she was intelligent, candid and quite original in her answers to many of the questions. A real treasure.

    Anyhoo, Just thought I’d add that while I’ve always held a view similar to yours regarding the burqa (hence my previous comment), the show did challenge my views on this. I think it’s legitimate to be concerned for the welfare of women coerced to wear it, who no doubt exist in this country. But then my usual approach to dealing with customs I’m not familiar with is to assume the best, not the worst, motives characterise the people who engage in the custom. When I see scarification on a young male aboriginal I presume it is something he is proud to have been initiated with, not the evidence of domestic abuse, for example. Why don’t I approach the idea of the burqa in Australia with the same open mindedness?

    There are nagging doubts in my mind on this one, but now, the uncertainty is pulling me in both directions instead of one..

  • Craig Benno
    July 20, 2011 at 7:09 am

    What an interesting topic. Of course this raises a whole heap of questions regarding choice, the cultural conditioning of religious belief and if Muslim women even have a choice regarding the religion they follow?

    On another note – I follow the blog of a Jordinian Muslim woman who recently wrote about feminism within Islam and how there is a movement to get the religion back to its grass roots teaching and change the perspective of what is really cultural tradition masquerading as religion.

  • Shane clifton
    July 20, 2011 at 7:32 am

    Dan and tim, you could be correct about my defensiveness. I think I am more defensive of my friend than I would be of myself. I don’t think I would ban the burka, but I do think criticism should be allowed.

  • Lauren
    July 24, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Hmmm, your post leaves me with a sense of unease … Shane, you of all people know what the principles of feminism are – the very heartbeat is to question men’s sexual control of women’s bodies, women’s lives, women’s choices.
    In your eyes, she has no identity, but more importantly, what is her experience in that garment? Without leaving room for a woman’s voice, your words are not so different from Muslim men who would enforce their own dress / sexual codes on women. The question you began with is a good one – can we critique the wearing the burka….?

  • Shane Clifton
    July 24, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Lauren, I understand your unease, and maybe feel a little uneasy myself. My problem is that I’m not convinced the garment is about women’s choice and women’s freedom from men’s control, since it seems to me that is male religion that is dictating the wearing of the garment, and hence eliminating the possibility for women to make that choice. Perhaps that is not so in Australia, but I suspect it certainly is in other places.

    You seem to be suggesting that I have not left room for a woman’s voice, and I’m not quite sure what you mean by that? If it means that I, as a man and someone who does not wear a burka, really should not comment because I should not speak for someone else (especially since I know nothing about that person’s experience), I guess I accept her critique. But then I am left a little uneasy that no one is able to challenge what seems to me to be religious oppression. I think that is what I’m speaking about–religious ideology.surely that is something we need to talk about, especially when that ideology seems (at least from my perspective) to subordinate women – To prevent them being able to speak for themselves?

    And even if I’m utterly wrong, I would still think that the conversation can and should be had.


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