I wrote a two sentence letter to the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, in which I said that like the Prime Minister, I too was confronted by certain forms of religious dress, such as nuns’ habits and cardinals’ crimson robes. My point, of course, was to highlight the hypocrisy of a Prime Minister who is supposed to be a Christian, and presumably comfortable with all the regalia of the Catholic Church, yet is intolerant of the dress and conventions of other religions. His remarks are divisive, and, like much of what the government is doing, will make matters worse, not better. More on that theme in the next blog, but for the moment let us ask if there are any grounds at all for quarantining women wearing the burqa in a glass cage if they wish to witness the activities of their government in person.
The following argument has been made, or implied, by Cory Bernardi, Liberal Senator: We wouldn’t let someone wearing a balaclava into parliament because their face is covered, the burqa covers the face, therefore women wearing burqas should not be allowed into parliament – indeed, maybe the burqa should be banned tout court. (This is not, incidentally, a valid argument, though it may looks like one). What is wrong with this reasoning is that we associate someone in Australia wearing a balaclava with criminal activity – I wore one in Montreal outside when I lived there, but that was because it was cold! People wear balaclavas when robbing banks, we are led to believe, so they will not be caught on CCTV or identified in some other way. Women wear the burqa for religious, not criminal, reasons. So if we see a people wearing balaclavas in Australia, anywhere but on the ski slopes, we would naturally infer that they were up to no good. Not so in regard to women wearing the burqa; we do not assume that they are intent on robbing a bank. Burqas and balaclavas both hide the face, but they do so for different reasons. If Bernadi does not know this, then comments that he makes are indeed a true indication of his intelligence.
Would it make any difference to the security of the members of parliament if the face of everyone who was admitted to chambers was in plain view? I believe that visitors are subject to security screening similar to that which takes place at airports. That will surely take care of guns, knives, bombs, corrosive fluids, and the like. And I assume it would also almost certainly uncover any strapping male jidadi terrorist who tried to hide behind the burqa and pretend to be a girl. On the other hand, a woman whose face was known and who was a criminal or suspect and who would otherwise be identified, by CCTV for instance, could hide behind a burqa, but it is hard to see how she could make much mischief without a weapon. If she was a suicide bomber who planned to blow herself up as soon as she was stopped by security, it would not matter if anyone saw her face. Similarly, a woman who had managed to commit a criminal act in parliament and flee the scene with her burqa intact would also not be easily identified by CCTV. On these scenarios, then, it would be harder to identify criminals who wear the burqa. But how likely are they to be realised? Surely very improbable indeed. Much more damage has been done to relations with the Muslim community, even given the Prime Minister’s apparent back down, than would be prevented by the suggested measures. Oh, and the letter was not published.