The Australian parliament has decided that women who wear the burqa or niqab are meant to be neither seen nor heard during public parliamentary sessions. This new rule follows just a day after a controversial statement by Prime Minister Tony Abbott that the burqa was a “confronting” garment, to which I say: good. It sounds like he, and the members of the Liberal party that actually supported approved this rule, ought to be confronted with the uncomfortable intersection of their racism and misogyny.
The new rules announced this morning by the Australian Department of Parliamentary Services relegate anyone with a “facial covering” to a secondary viewing area enclosed by glass; making them invisible to the politicians at work. (These galleries are normally used for visiting schoolchildren who are unable to sit still and be quiet during a parliamentary field trip.) According to Senate President Stephen Parry, the basis for the change is a crackdown on security:
One of the key reasons for this is if there is an incident or someone is interjecting from the gallery, which as senators would know happens from time to time, they need to be identified quickly and easily so they can be removed for that interjection[.]
Yup, there is literally no way of identifying a woman shouting at Parliament while wearing a burqa or niqab. Certainly not by saying, “It was the lady in the third seat in that row!” Or, “The one in the niqab, she’s the one who just called Mr. Abbott a prick! And rightfully so, I might add!”
Now, before anyone leaps to the defense of these poor, confronted politicians, it’s worth pointing out that the Prime Minister said while putting his foot in his mouth on Wednesday that he can’t actually remember anyone wearing this garment in Parliament; and that Senator Cory Bernardi, one of the politicians who supported the change, bases his stance on having seen veiled women at Parliament three years ago. It doesn’t really sound like this new measure is attempting to solve a real problem, but to send a message to Muslim women: “If you want to feel like a part of the country where you live, you’d better assimilate to the values we prefer.” Especially since all visitors to Parliament, regardless of their choice in headwear, religious or otherwise, have to pass through a security screening before being admitted to the galleries in the first place.
Muslim women who make the choice to cover their faces are doing so for reasons of faith, not because they are signing on to be treated as second-class citizens by white male politicians. Their presence in public spaces is neither a threat nor a problem in search of a solution. And if you’re too nervous to sit in Parliament’s galleries next to a woman with her head covered, I have good news: there are some secluded glass-enclosed galleries that just might be what you’re looking for.