The Government’s Burqa Problem

The past week has been dominated by headlines of burqas and bans and ignorant politicians who are only too happy to spew their bigoted views.

Suffice to say, it’s been one hell of a long news week that has left many Australians who follow national politics exhausted and breathing sighs of relief that the weekend is finally upon us.

So, let us recap the events of the past week. Warning: the words ‘burqa’ and ‘niqab’ will feature heavily in this piece.

On Monday, The Daily Telegraph published an article that detailed how one its reporters, Tanya Smart, dressed up in Muslim garment of the niqab last weekend, in Sydney’s CBD and in Lakemba, to experience what it felt like to be a Muslim women in Australian society.

burqa ban australia

The Daily Telegraph had a reporter dress up in a niqab for a story.

The controversial piece was met with flurry of both praise and condemnation on social media, with many attacking the News Corp publication for taking a much too simplistic and sensationalist approach to dealing with a sensitive and complicated issue.

Although it did manage to achieve its basic goal of bringing to light the growing Islamophobia in our country, the The Daily Telegraph clearly failed to grasp the irony of the situation – one of the main reasons behind the rising violence and abuse directed towards Muslims is due to the newspaper’s sensationalist and, at many times, anti-Muslim coverage of national security issues.

Meanwhile, the war drums at Australian Parliament House continued to beat as Senators Jacqui Lambie and Cory Bernardi, with the support of a few other Coalition MPs, ramped up their efforts to implement a burqa ban, which some legal experts had said would be unconstitutional.

However, it wasn’t until Wednesday that shit really hit the fan, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott was pressed on the issue of the burqa during a press conference, he said: “I find it a fairly confronting form of attire. Frankly, I wish it was not worn but we are a free country, we are a free society and it is not the business of government to tell people what they should and shouldn’t wear”.

tony abbott burqa quote

Now, here’s the problem with those comments: Yes, Abbott makes it clear that he does not support a ban on the burqa because it impinges on basic human rights and freedoms, but the fact that he said that he found it “confronting” and wished it was not worn sent very mixed messages to the media, the Australian people, and the Parliament. How did he expect his MPs and Senators to react to such comments? How did he think his poor choice of words would be interpreted?

Although Abbott did backtrack on his comments the following day, by that time it was already too late and the damage was done. On Thursday afternoon, news emerged that the Department of Parliamentary Services, a body at APH that is supposed to operate independently of the government of the day and is headed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives Bronwyn Bishop and Senate president Stephen Parry, had issued new security measures. These measures stated that any persons wearing clothing that concealed the face, which in this case refers to both the burqa and the niqab, who wished to watch parliamentary proceedings would be banned from sitting in the public galleries and would instead be forced to sit in separate glassed enclosures.

In short, Muslim women wearing the burqa or niqab would be segregated from everyone else in the very building that is supposed to be the heart of our nation’s democracy.

Clearly, no one was pleased. Twitter exploded into a raging fury of condemnation. Even the News Corp publications, who had been gunning the anti-Muslim angle for some time now, were taken aback and thought the government had clearly gone too far.



The most stinging rebuke came from one of the government’s fiercest supporters, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson during an interview with David Speers on Sky News.

“Introducing a system where we segregate people on the basis of what they’re wearing, particularly when it’s related to religious garments, and religious freedom sits at the heart of Australian liberal democracy, I think is utterly unjustified. And it’s based on no real evidence or reason, when people have already gone through security checkpoints, and have already been cleared by security,” Wilson said. [Watch the video here.] 

Later that evening, news broke that Abbott was trying to overturn Bishop and Parry by quickly scrapping the DPS’ new security measures. But, again, it was already too late and the damage had already been done.

As of today, the security measures are yet to be formally retracted, although Abbott is obviously trying to fix this new self-made problem before the next two sitting weeks of Parliament resume.

However, in a manner that has become characteristic of this government, a new problem emerges at each turn. If Bishop is forced to retreat on Abbott’s orders, her authority and independence, or what’s left of it, as Speaker will be severely damaged.

And so we wait.

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