Project 365 – 15th and 16th July 2010

Posted: July 16, 2010 in Project 365
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Day 165 and 166 – The Burqa Ban

Nicolas Sarkozy said recently that burqas are “not welcome” in France, commenting that “In our country, we cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity”

By now everyone presumably knows what has been happening in France, with their Parliament (by 335 votes to 1) banning the wearing of face-covering veils in public and now Spain may also follow suit. It is, of course, aimed at those who wear traditional Muslim women’s clothing or headgear called the burqa and France’s actions make for an interesting debate.

There are those that say the law is anti-Muslim, anti-freedom of choice and breaches French and European human rights legislation but more, including Sarkozy and obviously a majority of the French Parliament, see it as a safety and women’s rights issue.

Michael Shaw of the Feminist Looking Glass blog says “I think the French government should ban the burqa. I say that knowing that it is clear that that the proposal is anti-Islam and is intended as a means of slowing the growth of the Muslim population.  My position is that the wearing of the burqa is an assault on women’s rights and that it is more important to free women from the burqa than it is to adhere to concerns about freedom of religion or the freedom for a woman to wear anything she wishes.  Can anyone really believe that the wearing of a burqa is a free choice by the wearer?”

The vital question, I think, is why? Why do Muslim women go about their public lives wearing this garment and why do the men in their lives continue to believe in, and enforce, it’s use? With all that in mind I decided to take some photos for my 365 project of the types of headgear the people of my local area (Newtown, NSW, Australia) were wearing at the time this ban was being debated around the world.

While a type of headgear is being banned in France, in Sydney it is illegal not to wear certain items, cyclists and motorbike riders all are denied the personal freedom of choice and are forced to wear a helmet for their own personal safety. Although the degree to which it’s enforced, especially on push-bikes, varies in extremities from place to place. One wonders how strictly this ban will be enforced and how fervently it might be defied?

Depending on the climate headdress is often used in the same manner that coats, rain-jackets and even jumpers are, to protect us from the elements of weather we face. In Saharan Africa men and women wear a taglemoust turban to protect against wind and sand, similar to the burqa it only reveals the wearer’s eyes but cannot be said to have a similar purpose.

There is of course the fashion element, what we wear on our heads has no practical purpose other than to compliment the rest of our clothing, or even hide our flaws. I would imagine this debate will have an influence on the fashion designers and would expect to see the theme explored in forthcoming collections.

Most people look at fashion as the choosing of clothes than make you look better or more attractive but fashion has a deadly undercurrent. Everything you wear says something about you, and, subconsciously or not, people express a part of who they are by what they put on. These two guys above struck me as they went in and out of Foodworks on Thursday night. What they are wearing, and the way they are wearing it sends very definite signs of what their personalities may be like. Of course, those signs could also be totally wrong. A big part of the burqa debate centers on what the wearing of it says about the person beneath and whether, as a community we should be concerned about what that means, or strive to ignore the visible aspects of our differences.

There is a final wearer of headgear that I encountered, one who’s over reliance on hoods, hats or caps defies an explanation of safety, protection or warmth. Neither, one imagines, can it be categorised as fashion. The wearer, perhaps more closely aligned to those of the banned French garment, seem to want to cover more of themselves than is practically necessary. A people who speak softly and sparingly, walk with closed body language, head down and seems to want to hide from the world.

Are Muslim women entitled to hide away, or do they exist in a world where the garments they wear oppress them to a point where they do not even realise the choices they have, if even they do have them? Does the French ban help them or should the oppression that it seeks to stop be opposed in a way that does not limit human freedom? Is there even such a way?

(More photos on flickr)

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